Yankees breathe easier after Tanaka returns

ByWallace Matthews via ESPN logo
Thursday, June 4, 2015

Masahiro Tanaka's first big-league pitch in 41 days arrived at about 12:49 Pacific time, and left Safeco Field a millisecond later, leaving a vapor trail as it headed into the seats. It was not a promising beginning.

But luckily for the New York Yankees, Logan Morrison, the Seattle Mariners' leadoff hitter, was a tick out in front and pulled it foul down the right-field line.

A little less than two hours later came Tanaka's last pitch of the day, a 96 mph fastball at the knees that caught Kyle Seager looking and completed a run of 13 straight Mariners retired by the Yankees' once -- and possibly future -- ace right-hander.

No one, probably not even Tanaka himself, could have foreseen a more satisfying ending. That strikeout, Tanaka's ninth of the game, put a ribbon on a seven-inning, three-hit, one-run stint that could only be called an unqualified success.

Because in between his first pitch and his last, Tanaka gave the Yankees something to dream about as they flew overnight back to New York Wednesday night, having swept the Mariners to salvage a road trip that had started out as a disaster -- one more healthy right arm at the top of their rotation, an arm they might well have thought they would never see again.

Six of the seven innings Tanaka worked were 1-2-3 frames. Seven of his nine strikeouts were looking. Fifty-eight of his 78 pitches were strikes. And apart from the third inning, when a leadoff triple by Brad Miller and an RBI double by Dustin Ackley accounted for the only Seattle run of the day, there was barely a hard-hit ball off Tanaka save for Morrison's game-opening foul. That final pitch to Seager was Tanaka's fastest pitch of the day, and may well have been the fastest pitch he has thrown as a Yankee.

That will help them sleep a little easier on that cross-continent flight home, although manager Joe Girardi admitted, "We'll all wait to see how he feels tomorrow."

That's just the way life with Masahiro is going to be from here on: watching in wonder as Tanaka works, and wondering how he will feel waking up the next morning.

That's the way it is when a team knows that its ace, to whom the Yankees have committed seven years and $155 million, has a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, a tear that will not heal on its own, a tear that can never really get better but certainly could get a whole lot worse.

On the advice of a quartet of orthopedic surgeons, the Yankees chose to roll the dice on Tanaka last year and attempt to rehab that UCL tear without taking the usual, drastic course of action, which is Tommy John surgery.

Nearly a year after Tanaka suffered that potentially catastrophic injury, while pitching in Cleveland last July 8, it appears the Yankees gamble is paying off. Not only is Tanaka throwing as hard or harder than he has ever thrown in pinstripes, but his stuff, in particular his elbow-grinding splitter, appears to be as sharp as it was not only before his most recent injury, a forearm strain, but as it was during the first half of last season, when he came over as the most highly-touted pitching prospect from Japan in years.

Tanaka had not pitched since April 23, having been placed on the disabled list six days later with what the Yankees described as a forearm strain. It was a curious injury that Tanaka has never acknowledged feeling any pain from; the Yankees originally sent him for an MRI after he complained of soreness in his wrist. In any event, the injury kept Tanaka out of action for nearly six weeks, and there is little doubt that the Yankees were a lot more cautious with Tanaka than they might have been with another pitcher.

So they were certainly on pins and needles over this start, especially since Tanaka got lit up by a Triple-A team in his final rehab start last week. And that made what Tanaka showed on the mound Wednesday, against a lineup that included ex-Yankee Robinson Cano, one of the best pure hitters in the game, and Nelson Cruz, the AL home run leader, so gratifying.

"I wanted to see how it would go," Girardi said. "Going into this game I didn't expect to get seven from Tanaka, but he was outstanding. That's probably the best stuff he's had all year."

What was especially surprising was Tanaka's velocity. According to BrooksBaseball.net's PitchFX tool, Tanaka's four-seam fastball average 93.8 mph and topped out, on that last pitch to Seager, at 95.8. In September, after missing two months of the season with the UCL tear, Tanaka's fastball averaged 91.8, and in April, it was down to 91.4.

"I'm not sure I expected it the first time out," Girardi said of Tanaka's velocity, a point of conversation he generally seeks to avoid. "That's the highest velocity we've seen from him."

Like all managers, Girardi prefers to manipulate his numbers to his own best advantage; if a player is having a poor spring, he will say spring training numbers don't matter. If the player is having a great spring, he will use it as evidence that said player is poised to have a huge season.

Likewise for a pitcher's velocity. When Tanaka -- and CC Sabathia, for that matter -- were rarely breaking 90 mph on the radar gun in the spring and in their early starts, Girardi insisted velocity wasn't nearly as important as location.

While that may be true, the manager had no problem chatting up Tanaka's velocity after Wednesday's game, which wound up being a 3-1 Yankees victory that sent them home with a 4-3 road trip.

Same goes for Tanaka, who when his fastball was loitering in the 89-91 range treated questions about his velocity with undisguised contempt. After Wednesday's game, Tanaka acknowledged that for a pitcher like him, who lives mainly on his splitter, a couple of extra blips on his fastball certainly comes in handy.

"It does help work the other pitches in my favor, so it's good," Tanaka said. "Looking back at today's outing, I think my fastball was really good."

And that is indisputably good news for the Yankees. They may be holding their collective breath over how Tanaka feels on Thursday, but on Wednesday afternoon, you could feel an entire organization breathe a sigh of relief that their $155 million man was finally able to air it out.

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