TORONTO — The first thing that’s plainly obvious about Masahiro Tanaka is the fact the New York Yankees spent $155 million on a guy who’s not going to blow hitters away with velocity. Despite his incredible 24-0 record last year in Japan, this is not a Yu Darvish type on the mound.
Tanaka is going to be all about guile and deception and some sneaky low-90s deliveries to get key outs. Any way he can get them will work for Joe Girardi & Co.
What do the Yankees have for their investment? You’re never going to make blanket assertions off one outing but Tanaka overcame some early nerves Friday night during his Rogers Centre unveiling against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Even with his opening night jitters, you could see what all the fuss was about. Tanaka went seven innings and got the win in the Yankees’ 7-3 victory. He gave up three runs (two earned) on six hits, struck out eight and walked none in his first major league start on this side of the Pacific.
“As the game progressed, I think I was getting better out there,” Tanaka said through an interpreter in an interview room packed with more than 100 reporters, many from Japan, as the clock approached midnight. “I was nervous going into the game. … I was just able to focus better around third or fourth inning.”
Tanaka’s third pitch in the major leagues, to leadoff man Melky Cabrera, was delivered over the fence in right field. He fell behind, 3-2, in the second on a two-run single by No. 9 hitter Jonathan Diaz, who was going to be the Bisons’ shortstop until Jose Reyes turned up lame (again) Monday in Tampa.
And that was that. Tanaka bounced back to retire 13 of the final 14 batters he faced and 16 of the final 18 after the Diaz single. He threw 97 pitches, 65 for strikes.
“I thought he settled down great,” Girardi said. “The first couple innings were a little rough. … To give us seven innings in under 100 pitches, he did a really, really good job.”
I remember there being no tent big enough to cover the Daisuke Matsuzaka media circus when he first came here seven years ago. This was bigger.
There were more than 200 media members in the house. So were Tanaka’s parents. The game was also televised live back to Japan. Photographers from the Far East lined the ballpark’s basement hallway waiting for Tanaka’s arrival two hours prior to the game.
They lined the entrance to the field to chronicle the moment he walked on the turf to head to the bullpen. I saw four full tables of photographers working in the ballpark basement behind the Yankees dugout. I have been coming to games here for 20 years and have never seen that before.
“You think about what he’s had to deal with all spring training, the attention that’s been on him,” Girardi said. “Covers of magazines. Everyone he goes, people wanting to know when he’s pitching. That started Feb. 14. When’s his first start? I think he handled it great.”
Tanaka is big news in the big leagues this year. He’s even bigger news across the ocean.
“The Yanks don’t miss on too many things,” Jays manager John Gibbons said before the game. “When they decide to go for something, they have a pretty good idea. They have the money to do it and that’s kind of the way the Yankees work.”
After seeing Tanaka, Gibbons called him “the real deal.” He’ll see plenty more of him in the AL East too.
Tanaka has a big leg kick with his left leg. He seems to hide the ball well in his glove too. His stuff was flat and in the mid-80s in the early innings but once it started dancing, Toronto hitters had trouble.
“It was my mistake,” he said of the home run. “Cabrera took a good swing at it. Coming back comes from my experience as a baseball player and it’s my teammates. They really backed me up.”
The Yankees will need him to be economical with his pitches, especially early in the year as he gets used to the American pitching schedule of once every five days. In Japan, remember, he went once every seven days and thus certainly threw more pitches in each outing.
“Training your body to do something different is a key,” Girardi said. “It can affect stamina. During a game. Fatigue overall during a season is something we’ll have to watch to see how he’s adjusting.”
As his first career start, this was big stuff for Tanaka. But it came against far from a normal backdrop.
It was the Blue Jays’ home opener and the dome was full, with the towel-waving rans roaring as former Toronto ace Roy Halladay threw a strike for the ceremonial first pitch.
The Yankees put out pretty much a makeshift lineup that didn’t include Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano and Brian Roberts, with most observers thinking it was simply a concession to the Toronto artificial turf.
As it turned out, the Yankees didn’t get here from Houston until past 6 a.m. as they endured a harrowing, sleepless flight from the Midwest that Girardi called “Knuckleball Express.”
Every Yankees game, of course, is full of triumph and crisis and this was no different. New leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury was 3 for 4 on and was on base four times. But first baseman Mark Teixeira left with a hamstring problem in the second inning and seems headed for the disabled list.
For his part, Tanaka just kept pitching. He’s the latest act in the Yankees’ traveling circus. Looked good for openers.