NEW YORK — Just under one month ago, Masahiro Tanaka was laying motionless on the mound at Yankee Stadium, his arms covering his face as he clutched above the brim of his cap.
The right-hander had taken a 112-mph missile off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton off the right of his head, a comebacker so scary that manager Aaron Boone initially feared for the hurler's life.
On Saturday, Tanaka returned to the very spot he was struck, standing tall as he made his regular-season debut in a 5-2 victory against the Boston Red Sox.
"Really good to be back on the mound again," Tanaka through the Yankees' interpreter after his short but promising start. "Right now, after my outing, I'm feeling good. All in all I think everything went well."
Tanaka toed the slab for 2 2/3 innings, striking out three while allowing four base hits and two runs. His biggest mistake of the night came on the final pitch of his outing — a ringing double from shortstop Xander Bogaerts off the right-center field wall that plated two.
"I wasn’t happy with my command," Tanaka said. "It’s been since Spring Training where I’ve been in a competitive game, so I think there was some rust there. I kind of felt it when I was throwing my bullpen. Really didn’t have the good command, the pinpoint command that you want."
In normal circumstances, perhaps Boone would have been discouraged by the runs scored and Tanaka's overall performance. Considering how far he's come in the last four weeks, however, puts his outing into perspective.
Just one day after Tanaka's injury on July 4, Boone recognized that the hurler had "dodged a bullet" and was fortunate to walk away with nothing more than a mild concussion. Since then, his ability to ascend through his recovery — both physically and mentally — was an accomplishment in its own right.
"I thought it was really good," he said. "The power was there with the fastball. That’s as good a velocity we’ve seen on his fastball really over the last couple of years."
Of Tanaka's 51 pitches thrown on Saturday — of which 32 were strikes — the Japanese star threw 31 heaters, averaging 92.9 mph. Last season, per Statcast, Tanaka averaged just 91.5 mph on his fastball.
Tanaka had thrown in a simulated game against his teammates nearly two weeks ago before facing hitters five days ago at the club's alternate training site. Pitching in a game that actually counts, however, is another story. In the starter's eyes, that's where the velocity boost came from.
"I think it’s more the excitement and adrenaline of getting back into game action," he explained. "That naturally brought the velocity up."
Even if he didn't make it out of the third frame, Tanaka's teammates were glowing after the game when asked about the right-hander's return to the starting staff.
"He’s been a staple here for [six] years," outfielder Mike Tauchman, who had three hits on Saturday, said. "The preparation, the effort, the consistency, when he takes the ball. I know he’s still gotta build up his pitch count but we expect him to pitch deep into games. He looked great tonight after what happened coming out throwing a lot of strikes. So, it’s great to have him back."
Gio Urshela, who supported Tanaka with his first career grand slam in the bottom of the second, said he always enjoys seeing No. 19 on the mound and is eager to try and get him back in the win column in his next outing.
His manager agreed. Adding Tanaka back to the Bombers' star-studded rotation, with ace Gerrit Cole, puts New York in an even better position moving forward.
"You're getting a front line starting pitcher to the mix," Boone explained. "He’s just another piece that helps round out and complete our team because once he gets built up, he’s a guy that can get us through the middle innings and sometimes deep into games. Any time you get a really good big-league starter back in your rotation, those guys get paid a lot of money because they’re really good and are difference makers."
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