NEW YORK – Before Masahiro Tanaka threw the first pitch of his simulated game on Tuesday afternoon, he hopped in place, stretching his neck back to take a deep breath.
It was the first time the Yankees' right-hander had returned to the rubber at Yankee Stadium since he was struck in the head by a line drive on July 4.
Despite all the progress he's made in the last 17 days — both mentally and physically — Tanaka admitted it was impossible not to allow the comebacker to cross his mind as he began his windup.
The Japanese star slowly went into his motion, kicking his left leg as he always does before firing a fastball high and tight to Kyle Higashioka. From that point on, however, Tanaka was able to put the 112-mph line drive off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton behind him.
"It actually crossed my mind for the very first pitch," Tanaka said through the Yankees' interpreter. "But after I threw that, it was back to business, back to normal."
It may have been his first time facing hitters since the scary incident two-plus weeks ago, but Tanaka looked as if he hadn't missed any time at all. The right-hander threw 20 pitches, facing five hitters and inducing weak contact from each position player that manager to put the ball in play.
"I thought he was strong," manager Aaron Boone said on Tanaka's performance. "His fastball had life to it. I thought the stuff was pretty good and I thought it was an important step of getting back out there and facing hitters."
After Tanaka couldn't get out of the way of the comebacker, folding on the mound and laying motionless for several minutes, Boone admitted that he immediately feared for Tanaka's life. Now, he's working his way back onto his five-day plan and could rejoin the Yankees' rotation in 10 days.
"Now he’ll go on his five-day," Boone said. "The plan will be to throw a bullpen in between and then throw in Scranton [at the Yankees' alternate training site] hopefully up to 30 to 35 pitches and potentially be in the position to join us."
That means, barring any setbacks, Tanaka is presently on track to start New York's third home game of the season — the first of three games against the Red Sox — on July 31.
With a head injury — and something that could have resulted in something far more serious than merely a mild concussion — Tanaka isn't looking too far ahead. He's focused on his next time out and building off Tuesday's encouraging performance.
"Being back on the mound and being able to pitch obviously without a doubt was a big step forward for me. It tells that I’m progressing in the right direction," he said.
To keep up with all of Inside The Pinstripes’ coverage, click the "follow" button at the top right-hand corner of this page.