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Tanaka hopes to turn things around in Yankees' finale vs. Royals

NEW YORK -- In the last week, a popular question asked of the New York Yankees is what's wrong with Masahiro Tanaka.

Two horrific starts prompted those inquiries from fans and media and even from Tanaka himself. So much, that even he conceded he needed to go "back to basics" while preparing for his next start.

New York will be curious to see if Tanaka can correct all the things to go wrong in the last week Thursday afternoon in the finale of a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals.

In his last two starts, Tanaka's ERA has risen from 4.36 to 6.56. He allowed eight runs and seven hits in 1 2/3 innings during a 10-7 loss to the Houston Astros May 14 and followed it up by allowing six runs and nine hits in three innings during Saturday's 9-5 loss at Tampa Bay.

"I can't really go too much into detail of what's going on, but yes, I was able to check to see of the things that I'm doing wrong," Tanaka said through his translator. "I feel like I'm in sort of in a deep hole.

"Again I just can't put my head down. I have to lift my head up, work on the things that I need to work on and try to fix what I need to fix. Definitely it's frustrating but I'm trying to get it right."

Since pitching a three-hitter in Boston on April 27, Tanaka has a 10.50 ERA in May. His worst ERA in any month with at least four starts was a 4.12 mark in six starts last June.

Tanaka has been prone to home runs as he has allowed 13 in his first 48 innings.

"As far as it being one of the worst slumps in my career, I probably have to agree with that," Tanaka said Monday through a translator. "You have to grind it out. You can't put your head down. Physically, there's no problems at all. I feel fine."

The fact it's not physical can be viewed as a good sign for the Yankees, who are optimistic it's just a rut and not a prolonged slump.

"I think as a coach you look for signs that someone is hurt," manager Joe Girardi said. "We haven't seen a real drop in velocity, we haven't seen him not being able to make a start. We haven't seen him receiving extra treatment. He's just in a little rut now that he needs to get out of. He feels fine.

"The schedule has been favorable for starting pitchers in a sense to get extra days. We've had a ton of off days, so maybe getting on every fifth day will help. Who knows?

Tanaka has a 6.00 ERA in two previous starts against the Royals. He allowed two of Lorenzo Cain's three home runs in New York on May 10, 2016 and allowed two runs and four hits in a five-inning no-decision in Kansas City on Aug. 30.

Tanaka will be opposed by Miguel Almonte, who makes his first career start. Almonte is taking the place of Nate Karns, who landed on the disabled list with an injured forearm.

"Very excited," Almonte said through a translator Wednesday. "That's what I've done in the minor leagues, first outing as a starter and I'm very excited about it."

Almonte posted a 6.23 ERA in nine relief appearances last season in 2015 but has extensive experience as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues with 101 starts. This season, he is 1-0 with a 2.17 ERA in seven appearances (six starts) with Double-A Northwest Arkansas.

The right-hander has shown improvement after struggling through most of last year. He started the season with Triple-A Omaha but was 3-7 with a 5.55 ERA in 21 appearances (12 starts) and got demoted to Double-A where he was 2-1 with a 7.31 ERA in 11 appearances.

"A lot of issues mechanically and I sorted those things out and I feel like I've got pretty good control of the strike zone," he said of the difference from last season.

Almonte will become the 219th different starting pitcher in Kansas City's history and will attempt to become the first Royal to win his first career start since Everett Teaford on Sept. 11, 2011 at Seattle.

The Yankees will be hoping Tanaka can pitch as well as Luis Severino in Wednesday's 3-0 win. Severino matched a career high with eight innings while Didi Gregorius homered.

New York will play the game without Jacoby Ellsbury after the center fielder was diagnosed with a concussion and a sprained neck. He crashed face-first into the wall catching a fly ball by Alcides Escobar and was placed on the seven-day concussion DL after the game.

The Royals (19-27) will be trying to get a split of the series. After hitting four home runs Tuesday, the Kansas City was blanked for the fifth time this season and lost for the sixth time in nine games since getting to five games of .500.

"You've just got to go up there and have the best at-bats you can but when a guy has his stuff working like he did tonight you just kind of hang with him," Kansas City center fielder Cain said. "Just try to focus on bouncing back tomorrow and hopefully get a win."

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