Tanaka climbs off the canvas to win

April, 5, 2014
4/05/14
1:31
AM ET
TORONTO -- It didn't take long for the Toronto Blue Jays to extend a rude welcome to Canada, and to Major League Baseball, to Masahiro Tanaka.

Melky Cabrera hit Tanaka's third pitch of the night so far it had to go through customs after returning to earth. To make things worse, the home run came on the splitter, Tanaka's money pitch, the one that will make or break his career here in the United States.

That shot was the equivalent to an unbeaten young fighter being dropped by the first punch from a champion, a turn of events that for some is so disheartening they never recover from it. For some, it reinforces what they always suspected, that they really don't belong here, that they are in over their heads, and that their deep, dark secret has finally been exposed.

Then there are the ones who shake it off, climb off the canvas, and win.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesMasahiro Tanaka's first inning didn't go as planned.
Place Masahiro Tanaka firmly in the latter category. On a night of mixed blessings for the Yankees -- they won the game convincingly 7-3 but lost Mark Teixeira indefinitely to a hamstring strain -- they learned something vital about their $155 million righthander.

He can take a shot. And fire back with a few of his own.

On a night like this, the Yankees learned more about Tanaka than they would have had he cruised through the Blue Jays lineup without a single anxious moment. That would have proved nothing. This may have proved everything.

As pitching coach Larry Rothschild said, "I didn’t question the fact that he’d battle, but you learn more in games than you do in spring training because this is the real deal now. I thought he did a lot of good things tonight and passed some tests that you hoped he wouldn’t go through early, but he did. It was a good night for him."

Tanaka had flown to Toronto ahead of his team, and so did not suffer the horrendous flight or 6 a.m. arrival the rest of the Yankees did in making the trip from Houston after Thursday night's 4-2 win over the Astros.

But he had his own annoyances to contend with; a long cooling off period after his warmup due to the Opening Night introductions, followed by a lengthy Yankees first inning in which they scored two runs and left the bases loaded; an adjustment to the unique Rogers Centre mound, which is groomed steeper than most in major league baseball, and certainly than those in Japan, and to a lesser extent, the crush of media that descended upon Toronto for his first big-league start.

All of it combined to take Tanaka out of his normal pregame routine and upset his rhythm early in the game.

“I was nervous before going into the game," he said. "Once I was up on the mound, I felt that I really couldn't get into the game. I really couldn’t focus myself into the game at the beginning.”

On top of that, the pitch he lives and dies by stayed up around Cabrera's waistline the first time he threw it. As a result, it wound up where most splitters that don't split wind up, lost in the seats. At that point, a lot of 25-year-old pitchers pitching in a new league, in a foreign country, against unfamiliar hitters, might have begun to doubt the effectiveness of that pitch, or their ability to succeed with it here. Some might have been reluctant to throw it again.

Not Tanaka.

"The first one he threw got hit out of the park and he still had confidence in it," Rothschild said. "That told me a lot."

Although Tanaka retired the next three hitters, including strikeouts of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the heart of the Jays lineup, the second inning wasn't a whole lot better.

A pair of singles, a throwing error by Teixeira and a two-run single by Jonathan Diaz gave the Blue Jays a 3-2 lead and raised the definite prospect that Tanaka's first big-league game would be a cameo appearance.

But from the third inning on, all that changed. Encarnacion doubled with one out in the third -- and then Tanaka set down 13 of the final 14 hitters he faced, and would have retired them all if Yangervis Solarte had handled Encarnacion's hot shot in the sixth, which was generously scored a hit. Tanaka's final line -- seven innings, six hits, three runs (two earned), no walks and eight strikeouts -- told a good story, but only part of the story.

Said Teixeira: "First big-league batter he faces hits a home run, and it doesn’t faze him at all? That’s a great sign."

Even Blue Jays manager John Gibbons had nothing but praise for Tanaka. “He was tough," Gibbons said. "He made a few mistakes and we capitalized on them, but he stayed in the game and when they gave him the lead back, he kicked it in. He can keep you off-balance. He’s definitely the real deal.”

The Real Deal. Where have I heard that one before?

That was Evander Holyfield's nickname, and he was a guy who knew how to climb off the canvas and win. In Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees may have found themselves a Holyfield of their very won.
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
.271 16 70 71
OTHER LEADERS
HRB. McCann 23
RBIB. McCann 75
RB. Gardner 87
OPSB. Gardner .749
WM. Tanaka 13
ERAH. Kuroda 3.71
SOH. Kuroda 146