Masahiro Tanaka overcomes early runs in strong major league debut
The third pitch Masahiro Tanaka threw in the major leagues was lousy, an 86-mph floater up around the letters that Blue Jays leadoff man Melky Cabrera deposited over the Roger Centre's right-field fence for a home run.
After that, Tanaka, who made his major league debut in Toronto on Friday night, made only one more mistake over seven strong innings of work, largely living up to the reputation that netted him a seven-year, $155 million contract from the Yankees this winter. He was a big part of New York's 7-3 victory.
Tanaka rebounded nicely from the Cabrera home run, retiring his next three hitters on a groundout and a pair of strikeouts. He gave up two more runs in his second inning, but those came via a trio of well-placed ground-ball singles and were aided by a throwing error by Mark Teixeira that came with one out in the inning.
The only obvious mistake Tanaka made after the Cabrera home run came on a fastball he left in the middle of the plate to Edwin Encarnacion with one out in the third. The book on Tanaka is that his fastball, which sat around 93-94 mph Friday night, can flatten out. Indeed, Encarnacion squared this one up like it was put on a tee. It was shocking that it stayed in the park, and it barely did at that, hitting high off the left-field wall for a double. Encarnacion, however, never made it to third base, thanks in part to a diving play at first base by Kelly Johnson, who replaced Teixeira the previous inning after the former pulled a hamstring.
After that double with one out in the third, Tanaka faced the minimum through the end of the seventh inning. The only baserunner he allowed over those final 14 batters came after a groundball by Encarnacion that ate up rookie Yagervis Solarte at third base was generously ruled a single. Encarnacion was then promptly erased by a double-play.
On the night, Tanaka needed just 97 pitches to get through seven full innings in which he allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits and no walks while striking out eight. Tanaka admitted after the game that he had some pre-game jitters, but once he settled down it was clear his success comes from pounding the bottom of the strike zone with offspeed pitches that dip, dive and run. On the night, Tanaka faced 27 batters. Just four of them hit the ball on the fly to the outfield, two of those coming on the aforementioned mistake pitches. Fifteen of the 21 outs he recorded came via groundballs or strikeouts (two others were infield pop-ups), and four of the six hits he allowed were ground balls as well.
It may take a while to differentiate between Tanaka's slider, cutter, two-seamer and changeup, all of which fall in the mid-to-upper 80s with movement (he also has a curve that is 10 mph slower and easier to identify), but one pitch which clearly announced its presence in this game was his splitter. Coming in around 86-87 mph with some arm-side run and an off-the-table drop, Tanaka's splitter lived up to its billing as a near-unhittable pitch and contributed heavily to those eight strikeouts. The splitter he struck out Jose Bautista with for his first major league strikeout broke from the belt to the knees in the zone and wasn't even his best of the night. The pitch has such a significant break, MLB.com's Gameday labeled it a curveball.
For his efforts, Tanaka picked up his first major league win. Leading the Yankee attack in the game was the team's other $150 million addition, Jacoby Ellsbury, who picked up his first hits as a Yankee by going 3-for-4 with a walk, two doubles, two stolen bases, and two runs scored.
The only negative in the game for New York was the possible loss of Teixeira to a strained right hamstring. Teixeira pulled up lame after gloving a foul ball down the line hit by Cabrera in the bottom of the second and immediately came out of the game. Teixeira won't have an MRI until the team returns to New York on Monday, which strongly suggests he won't play on the Rogers Centre turf over the weekend. If Teixeira lands on the disabled list, the Yankees will have to hope 26-year-old Solarte can continue his hot start and take over third base full time, allowing Johnson to fill in at first. Solarte is 5-for-10 on the young season with three doubles, two of which came in Friday's game while driving in three runs. The story of the night, however, was Tanaka. It was just one start, and it wasn't spotless, but it was impressive enough that it didn't dilute the expectations for his transition to the major leagues in the slightest. Given how high those expectations have been, that's saying something.