Yanks need 15-K Tanaka to show up for postseason run
Masahiro Tanaka has provided plenty of head-scratching starts, in either direction, in a confounding regular season that began with a clunker on Opening Day in Tampa and concluded with a sterling 15-strikeout performance on Friday at the Stadium. In between, Tanaka has shown exactly why the debate has been so fierce over whether he should or will opt out of the remaining three years and $67 million on his contract during the offseason.
You’d ordinarily be tempted to believe a gem like Friday’s 4-0 win over Toronto bodes well for Tanaka’s next outing if his successor as team ace, Luis Severino, helps get the Yankees into the AL division series against either Cleveland or Houston with a win in whichever one-game playoff scenario they will face early next week.
That’s certainly the half-full glass Joe Girardi was offering sips from afterward, and the one the 90-win Yanks must cling to as far as Tanaka is concerned if they are to actually advance in the postseason beyond the AL wildcard game.
Still, even the $155 million righty readily admits he has been the personification of unevenness for six months. He barely finished with a winning record at 13-12 and needed his seven shutout innings against the Jays to keep his ERA below 5.00 for the year, finishing at 4.74.
“It’s pretty obvious there were a lot of ups and downs this season,” Tanaka said through his translator. “I really want to take this year as sort of a learning process.
“Hopefully, in the future I look back at this year as a year that there were a lot of struggles, but I was able to learn a lot from it.”
The former All-Star did finish the stretch run with a 3.77 ERA over a dozen appearances (6-4) since the AllStar break after posting an unsightly 5.47 ERA in the first half, prompting Girardi to suggest he’s been “far more consistent” over the final two-plus months of the season.
But the manager’s assessment is not entirely accurate if you break down Tanaka’s September results alone, alternating well-pitched wins against Boston and Baltimore with absolute beatings in Texas and Toronto before Friday’s latest crack at the Jays.
Just last Friday, of course, Tanaka had been rocked for three homers and seven earned runs in Toronto, running his long-ball total to 35, third-most in the league and easily a career-high since joining the Yanks in 2014.
Fast forward one week, however, and Tanaka’s fourseam fastball showed improved life, his splitter was diving and his slider biting from the outset of Friday’s matinee.
He registered three straight strikeouts — all via the split — in the first inning alone. And he mowed down the first 14 batters he faced, whiffing 10, until Ezequiel Carrera reached on an infield single, despite Starlin Castro’s diving stab up the middle.
Two more inconsequential hits followed, with Tanaka establishing his career-high of 15 strikeouts (with zero walks) with a punch-out of Michael Saunders to complete his seventh scoreless frame.
The 15 Ks — all but one of which notably coming via the swing-and-miss — also tied him with Washington’s Stephen Strasburg for the most in one game by any MLB pitcher this season, and with Yu Darvish (2013) for most by any Japanese hurler in the majors.
“The last couple of starts he’s had, I’ve been watching from the side, but there was a lot of movement on his pitches today,” catcher Austin Romine said. “Probably the best I’ve seen his split, action-wise. It was nice to see him attacking guys on every pitch to both sides of the plate.
“I’m sure he got a lot of confidence out of that. It’s a good thing to finish on that kind of note, and hopefully he takes that confidence into (the playoffs).”
After Sonny Gray flushed a sizable lead one night earlier, Girardi insisted he hasn’t decided whether to align Tanaka or Gray for a potential Game 1 next Thursday should the Yanks reach the division series.
The temptation based on the past two days at least has to be to lean towards Tanaka, sure.
Just remember, he has teased everyone with other dominant showings earlier this year — tossing a three-hit shutout in Boston in April, striking out 13 in May against Oakland, recording an eight-inning scoreless no-decision in Texas in June and whiffing 14 Rays on July 28.
Counting Friday’s gem, that’s 54 strikeouts, two walks and a 0.47 ERA in those five games alone. (In his other 25 starts, his ERA is 5.96).
“It gives you a lot of confidence in him. It just shows you his ability,” Girardi reasoned about Friday’s outing. “He’s had a pretty good second half for us, so we’re going to need that to continue as we move forward.”
Yes, that is what they will need. Whether Tanaka is able to repeat or resemble such a performance hasn’t been nearly the certainty all year.