Even Tanaka's curious about Tanaka

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
12:58
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka speaks very little English and conducts all of his interviews with the American media with the help of an interpreter.

But on Friday, no translator was needed for one of Tanaka's responses. When asked whether he was curious about how his stuff will play against major league hitters when he makes his first appearance of the spring in a game against the Phillies, Tanaka uttered just one word: "Much-o."

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMasahiro Tanaka makes his spring debut Saturday.
That makes him and about 10,000 other people who will come to George M. Steinbrenner Field for Saturday afternoon's game, which will feature not only Tanaka but also CC Sabathia, who will start the game, Hiroki Kuroda, who will follow Sabathia, and Derek Jeter, making his second spring start.

But all eyes will be on Tanaka, who will be the third pitcher in the game -- assuming neither of the previous two leaves in the middle of an inning -- and probably will face at least some of the Phillies' regulars in what is planned as a standard early-spring two-inning, 35-pitch outing.

Set your alarm clocks for the fifth inning, because that is when Joe Girardi plans on bringing Tanaka in.

"I'm curious to see how he does," Girardi said. "Hopefully he keeps his emotions in check, and that's what you worry about a little bit, guys trying to do too much. Players a lot of times want to validate contracts."

Girardi added his belief that Japanese-born players, in particular, are concerned about living up to their contracts. "I think there’s a certain amount of pride that they feel they’re pitching for their whole country sometimes and that can be a bit much," he said.

In that case, Tanaka will have to be plenty good to justify his seven-year, $155 million contract. But it doesn't seem as if emotions are likely to get the best of Tanaka, at least not on Saturday. The 25-year-old righty has been a sensation in Japan since he was an 18-year-old high school phenom. Asking him whether he is fazed by the media coverage here makes about as much sense as asking the 1964 Beatles whether they were fazed by playing the "Ed Sullivan Show" after years of superstardom in Europe.

With an attitude that is sure to please Girardi, Tanaka said he was not at all concerned about his results Saturday. His eye is on the bigger picture.

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"I understand there’s going to be a lot of attention on the results, the numbers of what I do out there," he said. "But for me, I’m not looking at it at all. I just want to go out there and pitch my style out there and see how it is on the mound."

Tanaka has had to make a lot of adjustments so far, from the time difference to the language to the food to the smaller baseball and every-five-days rotation. Asked which of them was most difficult, Tanaka said, "I can't think of anything that I've had a problem with."

The Yankees' New York beat crew can attest to this, having taken Tanaka to dinner to get better acquainted Wednesday night in Tampa. Throughout the two-hour meal, Tanaka was relaxed and friendly and not at all affected by having a lot of eyes on him. It makes the Yankees' extreme limiting of access to him this spring seem that much sillier.

But the time has come when the Yankees can no longer protect him. Tanaka will pitch in front of a full house Saturday, as well as on live TV, and the next time he takes the mound he will be the starter, not an obscure middle reliever throwing to Triple-A kids. Girardi said he has already decided when Tanaka will make his regular-season debut but refused to share; suffice it to say it will be either Game 3 against the Astros in Houston on April 3 or Game 4 against the Blue Jays in Toronto the following night.

The smart money is on Houston because of its weaker lineup and grass field, which will accentuate the effect of Tanaka's money pitch, the split.

"I feel that it is important to get some swing-and-misses from that pitch," Tanaka said. "But going into tomorrow I just want to see how batters react to that pitch."

They will see that one plus, Tanaka said, all six of the other pitches in his arsenal: two- and four-seam fastballs, a curve, slider, cutter and a changeup, which Girardi said he hasn't seen yet but Tanaka said he has been working on during his bullpen sessions.

Asked if the Yankees' secretive approach to Tanaka's workouts so far was an attempt to keep him flying under the radar, Girardi said, "No, he's not flying under anything. You'll all see him tomorrow, and I'm as curious as anyone to see how he does."

But no more curious than Tanaka himself. Much-o.
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Jacoby Ellsbury
BA HR RBI R
.288 14 64 64
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Teixeira 20
RBIJ. Ellsbury 64
RB. Gardner 81
OPSB. Gardner .787
WM. Tanaka 12
ERAH. Kuroda 3.88
SOM. Tanaka 135