- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- For six out of the seven innings he pitched Wednesday night, Masahiro Tanaka's stuff was electric.
Too bad the crowd wasn't. In fact, it could hardly be called a crowd.
Seventeen years ago, Hideki Irabu made his Yankee Stadium debut and it was an event. He drew just under 52,000 fans to the old ballpark during a season in which the Yankees averaged less than 32,000 a night, and the place was alive from his first pitch to his exit after 6 ⅔ effective innings against the Detroit Tigers. They even served sushi, at the time an exotic delicacy, in the press lounge.
But in Tanaka's first home game as a Yankee, there were vast areas of empty seats and virtually no buzz until he threw a two-seamer past Matt Wieters with two runners on base in a tie game to end the fifth inning.
The Yankees announced the crowd as 39,412, but to these eyes, that number appeared to be inflated by between 5,000-10,000. What's up with that?
Tanaka, of course, was the prize of this year's offseason, the pitcher every team seemed to covet and at least a half-dozen teams were serious enough to bid on.
Even Orioles manager Buck Showalter, in the opposing dugout Wednesday night, admitted the Yankees' acquisition of Tanaka was a potential game-changer for the AL East.
"I thought it was the best acquisition of the offseason," Showalter said. "I've had a lot of people I really respect tell me he was the best guy to come out of there, especially in terms of his age."
So where were all the Yankees fans for this momentous event?
Well, there are several possible explanations: The early April cold weather kept a lot of people snug and warm at home in front of their TV sets. The exorbitant prices scared many off, as they have in increasing numbers every season since Yankee Stadium 3.0 opened in 2009. And a great number of Yankees fans, despite being excited by this winter's $438 million shopping spree, aren't quite sold on this team yet.
Obviously, with 81 home games to choose from and many against less-than-stellar attractions, not every game is a big event anymore. This weekend's four with the Boston Red Sox will qualify, of course, as will the pair with the Mets next month.
And this one, it seems, should have been an event, if only because of the preseason hype surrounding Tanaka and the fact that so far he has performed pretty darn well.
And yet, the Yankees admitted to 10,000 empty seats Wednesday night, and there were probably more than that.
These days, a night at any ballpark -- and especially this one -- is a discretionary purchase. But it was surprising to see how many fans chose to ignore the first home start by the most sought-after pitcher in this year's free-agent market.
Here's what they missed: a seven-inning, three-run, 10-strikeout performance by Tanaka, which got better the longer it went and may have ended an inning, or even two, before it should have. And a sneak listen to one of the most unusual, to say the least, entrance songs chosen by any professional athlete. It was a tune called "My Dear Fellow" (English translation), written about Tanaka and performed by Momoiro Clover Z, a Japanese girl group that looks like a cross between the Spice Girls and the Power Rangers. You can catch them on YouTube if you're so inclined.
But it was surprising that a local debut as highly anticipated as Tanaka's was so poorly attended. It was almost embarrassing considering the tone of some of the questions directed at Tanaka throughout spring training, most of which were along the lines of "How do you think you will handle the crowds, atmosphere and pressure of Yankee Stadium?"
Tanaka must have looked around at the half-filled ballpark when the game started and wondered if he had perhaps made a wrong turn and wound up in Flushing instead.
For the second straight start, Tanaka had trouble early -- Delmon Young, the second hitter he faced, roped a double, and in the second inning, Jonathan Schoop, the Orioles' No. 9 hitter, smoked a three-run homer into the second deck just inside the left-field foul pole -- but then settled down and began mowing down Orioles with regularity. From the third to the seventh, when Girardi lifted him after 101 pitches, Tanaka allowed three singles, walked one and struck out seven.
In his first two big league starts, Tanaka hasn't looked like a lights-out stud, à la Yu Darvish, but he is tenacious and does, as per his reputation, seem to get tougher as the game goes on. When his splitter is on, he makes a lot of hitters look foolish. He's never going to go 24-0 here, but at the same time, he's not going to be easy to beat because he has shown the ability to make in-game adjustments, and his demeanor -- also as advertised -- is bulldog-like on the mound. He's not going to roll over for anyone. He looks a lot like the kind of pitcher you have to get to early, or chances are you're not going to get to him at all.
"That’s obviously something I need to adjust," Tanaka said of his early-inning difficulties, "but it’s really hard to make an assessment just by two games."
Since it was his first start on four days' rest, Girardi thought 101 pitches was enough and pulled Tanaka in favor of Matt Thornton, Adam Warren and interim closer Shawn Kelley, who ultimately lost the game in the ninth. Several times this spring, Tanaka expressed bewilderment at the lighter workload in the U.S compared with Japan, where he routinely threw 120 pitches a game.
"I probably would have been able to have gone more," he said, "but I understand that there’s only four days between, and it’s going to be a long season, so I’m going with what the team tells me to do."
Still, because of the off-day on Monday, Tanaka will have an extra day's rest before his next start, against the Chicago Cubs at Yankee Stadium on April 15.
With an extra day to think about it -- and save their money -- maybe Yankee fans will make Masahiro Tanaka's second Bronx appearance a more lively and well-attended event than his first.
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