- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka will make his second start of the spring Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Braves at The Boss, and while it is way too early to start filling in probable starters for the regular season, I'll give a crack anyway.
It says here that Tanaka's first official major league start for the New York Yankees will come April 4 against the Blue Jays in Toronto.
I could be completely wrong about that, and it would hardly be the first time.
Or I could be completely right, and although that happens a lot less frequently, it wouldn't be a first, either.
It just seems that through a careful reading of the sparse tea leaves scattered by Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, one can deduce that the Yankees are not completely comfortable yet with sticking Tanaka into an unfamiliar (for him) five-day rotation, and since the regular season starts with 13 consecutive games without a day off, it makes a lot more sense to start him in the fourth game of the season than in the third.
There are caveats to that, of course. Game 3 would allow Tanaka to ease into the season against the weak-hitting Houston Astros on a natural grass field. Game 4 requires him to face the dangerous Blue Jays lineup, probably under a dome, on a billiard table-like artificial surface.
It could be that Girardi and Rothschild will opt for the easier game than the easier schedule. But knowing the cautious nature of both men, and their penchant for focusing on the big picture, it makes a lot more sense to send Tanaka out for Game 4 rather than Game 3.
"I think we weigh the schedule a little bit where he can get extra rest early in the season to try to keep him strong through the year," Rothschild said Saturday morning before the team left for its game in Sarasota. "We've got the 13 games in a row to start, so that's going to impact when we decide to pitch him."
That seems to say right there that Tanaka will be held back until Game 4, because the way the schedule lays out, he would face the Blue Jays on April 4, the Orioles on April 9 on four-days rest, and then not again until the opener of a two-game series with the Chicago Cubs at Yankee Stadium on April 15, the day after the first off-day of the season.
Take it further into the season and such a schedule would have Tanaka starting on four-days rest against the Rays in St. Petersburg on April 20 -- and then not again until April 26 because of a day off on April 21.
That way, the Yankees would be able to give Tanaka the extra days' rest twice in the first month of his first big-league season -- pretty much what Rothschild laid out in the above quote.
A residual effect of such a schedule would relieve Tanaka of having to face the Red Sox in a nationally-televised ESPN Sunday night game in the supercharged atmosphere of Fenway Park on April 13. Of course, you sign a guy like Tanaka to a $155 million contract specifically to pitch in games like that, but maybe not in his first month in the league.
"We're just getting him used to the fifth day and under different circumstances," Rothschild said. "That's why we did the [simulated] game last time, to try to let him get used to that and see what schedule works for him as far as throwing him in between and seeing how he feels on the day and just work toward that."
Clearly, the Yankees believe the transition from pitching once a week in Japan to once every five days in the U.S. will be the most difficult adjustment for Tanaka. Already, the Yankees have announced they will give Tanaka an extra day between Sunday's start and his next outing, which will not come until March 26.
None of this seems to concern the low-key Tanaka, who, when asked if he was excited about his start on Sunday said, honestly, "I’m not really pumped up right now, but tomorrow will be a different day."
He did acknowledge still adjusting to the new schedule -- he would like to throw more, not less, between starts -- and the slightly larger American baseball, which he said, surprisingly, might actually make his collection of breaking balls even sharper than they had been in Japan.
"If you really get the off-speed pitches right, I think it will give it more bite compared to balls in Japan," Tanaka said, words that might sound chilling to future Yankees opponents.
But on the subject of extra rest, Tanaka sounded as if he was in complete agreement with his manager and pitching coach.
"Once the season starts it’s gonna be every fifth day, so I'm making adjustments toward that," he said. "I just look at it if there’s an extra day I’m obviously happy with that. Just one day extra to work on a little bit something extra might help but basically I'm just adjusting to an every-five-days rotation."
It all seems to add up to the same conclusion: Tanaka will get that extra day, right at the beginning of the season and at least two more times during its first month. Save the date: The Masahiro Tanaka Era is (tentatively) scheduled to begin April 4 in Toronto.