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  • In a postseason that burned plenty of top starting pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka and Carlos Carrasco put on a fabulous display at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night.
By Jay Jaffe
October 09, 2017

NEW YORK—In an October short on pitchers’ duels and long on top starters getting tarred and feathered, the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco and the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka paired for a taut thriller on Sunday night. On the brink of being swept in the best-of-five Division Series, the Yankees summoned a 1-0 victory thanks to Tanaka’s seven brilliant shutout innings, a seventh-inning solo homer by Greg Bird off reliever Andrew Miller, and a five-out save by Aroldis Chapman, the longest of his postseason career.

“You can’t ask for more than what he did tonight,” said manager Joe Girard of Tanaka’s outing. “On a night that one run wins it, he didn’t give up any.”

Elsewhere this postseason, Tanaka’s peers have given up plenty. The Red Sox’ Chris Sale, the Indians’ Corey Kluber and the Diamondbacks’ Zack Greinke, all bona fide aces, failed to make it through five innings, while the Yankees’ Luis Severino couldn’t make it out of the first, and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, while providing length, tied a career high by surrendering four home runs. Including Sunday afternoon’s duds by Houston’s Brad Peacock and Boston’s Doug Fister, postseason starters had combined for a 10.97 ERA in the first inning, and a 6.50 ERA overall while averaging just 4.0 innings per turn, with only six out of 22 starters turning in six innings or more, and 13 failing to make it through five.

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Tanaka and Carrasco proved to be the exceptions, and both were particularly well-suited to the task, at least going by the statistical splits, some of them in smallish samples. The Yankees’ starter had been much more successful at home this year (3.22 ERA) than on the road (6.48), and at night (3.93) rather than the day (6.99). The Indians’ starter owns the majors’ third-lowest ERA on the road over the past three seasons (2.52), behind only Kershaw and Max Scherzer. In four previous career starts at Yankee Stadium from 2013-16, he had put up a 1.40 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 25 ⅔ innings.

Carrasco missed the Indians’ World Series run last year due to a fractured metacarpal suffered on Sept. 17, and had never pitched in a postseason game. Tanaka’s previous postseason experience stateside consisted of a solid five-inning, two-run effort in the Yankees’ 2015 AL Wild Card Game loss to the Astros.

“I came here to pitch in these type of games,” said the 28-year-old Japanese righty.

The Yankees could be forgiven for wondering just what kind of game they would get after an erratic season during which Tanaka turned in career worsts in ERA (4.74) and home run rate (1.8 per nine), well off the marks of his previous three major league seasons (3.12 and 1.1, respectively). He was even worse in the first half, getting lit for a 5.47 ERA, and while he trimmed that to 3.77 in the second half thanks in part to a strikeout-to-walk ratio that improved from 3.8 to 6.5, he gave up seven earned runs in two separate September outings.

Even so, Tanaka closed the regular season with a dominant 15-strikeout performance against the Blue Jays on September 29. Though not quite as prolific with the K’s on Sunday night, he induced 21 swings and misses, a total he surpassed just four times in the regular season. None were bigger than the sinkers in the dirt blocked by catcher Gary Sanchez in the fourth inning. With the season hanging by a thread, the pair teamed to extricate the Yankees following Jason Kipnis’ one-out triple, just the second of three hits Tanaka allowed.

Kipnis had golfed an inside fastball to rightfield, where Aaron Judge appeared to have a bead on the ball, but mis-timed his jump. The ball hit off the heel of his glove and then caromed off the wall as Kipnis took third. “Off the bat, I didn’t think I had a chance,” said Judge. “But as it got closer, I was right there. I just didn’t make the play.”

With the number three and four hitters in the lineup up next, namely Jose Ramirez and Jay Bruce—an MVP candidate and the series’ offensive star to date, respectively—Tanaka bore down and struck out both swinging at low sinkers. Sanchez, much maligned for his blocking abilities, smothering five pitches in the dirt over the course of the two plate appearances, and threw to first to first to complete the Ramirez strikeout.

In the sixth inning, Judge repaid Tanaka for getting him off the hook by robbing Francisco Lindor of a two-run homer. With a perfectly timed leap and the full extension of his massive 6’7” body, he hauled in the fly ball and deprived noted souvenir hawk Zack Hample of baseball number ten-thousand and something:

“That’s maybe the best I’ve seen him all season,” said Sanchez of Tanaka’s performance. “The difference is his split. He kept it low in the zone, he never gave in, never left it in the middle of the plate, made it really difficult for the hitters to hit it.”   

Via Brooks Baseball, Tanaka got 15 strikes and five swings and misses among his 23 splitters, and 20 strikes and eight swings and misses among his 27 sliders. Though he only threw 12 sinkers, nine resulted in strikes and seven via swings and misses. He didn’t need more than 16 pitches in any inning, and thanks to a pair of double plays, faced two batters over the minimum for his seven innings.

Carrasco was every bit as brilliant as Tanaka, delivering zeroes for 5 ⅔ innings. The 30-year-old righty, who ranked among the league’s top half-dozen in several key categories including ERA (3.29) and WAR (5.4),

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didn’t allow his first hit until Didi Gregorius singled in the fourth inning, and through five innings had whiffed seven. But with two outs in the sixth, he walked Judge on five pitches, then loaded the bases via a hard-hit single by Sanchez and a walk of Gregorius, also on five pitches. With his pitch count at 85, manager Terry Francona pulled him in favor of Miller, who had thrown 2⅓ scoreless innings over the first two games. Miller needed just two pitches to get out of that jam, inducing Starlin Castro to hit a routine popup to Lindor at shortstop.

Carrasco allowed just three hits and three walks, netting 18 swings and misses, including eight on his changeup and four apiece on his curve and slider; the two breaking balls accounted for six of his seven strike threes.

It would not have been a surprise had Yankees manager Joe Girardi pulled Tanaka after six, particularly with the 3-4-5 hitters due up in the seventh. But two days after being stung by criticism that he pulled starter CC Sabathia too early after 77 pitches—the first of several decisions that backfired, to say the least—Girardi stuck with his starter, whose pitch count was at 78. Tanaka rewarded Girardi’s trust by retiring the side in order, striking out Bruce for the third time on the night, his seventh and final whiff.

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Miller, so effective last October after being acquired from the Yankees in late July, wasn’t up to the task on Sunday. Facing Bird to lead off the seventh inning, he left a 1-1 four-seamer in the middle of the plate, and the 24-year-old first baseman launched a towering 396-foot solo homer to rightfield as the crowd of 48,614 erupted in catharsis. It was Bird’s second homer of the postseason, the latest shot of redemption for a trying season in which he was almost completely unproductive before returning from right ankle surgery in late August. It was just the second home run Miller surrendered to a left-handed batter all season.

After Tanaka departed, Girardi called upon David Robertson, who had thrown a total of five innings and 77 pitches in his two previous appearances this postseason. After he issued a one-out walk to Michael Brantley, Girardi turned to Chapman, who struck out pinch-hitter Yan Gomes and number nine hitter Giovanny Urshela to end the eighth, and then Lindor to start the ninth. But even as he dialed his fastball well into the triple digits—as high as 104 mph on one foul ball—Kipnis and Ramirez collected back-to-back one-out singles. Chapman then fell behind Bruce 2-0 before getting the 30-year-old slugger to swing at three straight 100 and 101 fastballs on the outer half of the plate for his fourth strikeout of the night, the ol’ golden sombrero. After going to a full count against Carlos Santana, he induced a game-ending fly ball.

In all, Chapman threw 34 pitches, 30 of which were fastballs of at least 100 mph. Asked if he reached back for a little bit more in an elimination game, “This is a decisive game. You can’t hold back. Everything you have, you have to go out there and give it all. Without tonight, there’s no tomorrow.”

For the Yankees, thanks to their stellar pitching, there will be at least one more tomorrow this year.

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