First Pitch: A Hiro in Wrigley

May, 19, 2014
May 19
9:00
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NEW YORK -- Wrigley Field has been around for a century. Masahiro Tanaka has been in major-league baseball for about six weeks. Both are magnificent in their own way, and this week, they will converge as the Yankees play a two-game series against the Chicago Cubs beginning Tuesday night.

Tanaka, who will get the start in the series opener, doesn't know a heck of a lot about Wrigley, except that it's very old. But he knows plenty about the Cubs, since he threw eight shutout innings against them at Yankee Stadium back on April 16.

And there but for a few dollars -- actually, only Tanaka and his agent, Casey Close, know exactly how many dollars -- Tanaka might have called Wrigley home. The Cubs were among the half-dozen teams seriously involved in bidding for his services, which were ultimately sold to the Yankees, of course, in exchange for $155 million over seven years.

So far, it looks like the steal of the century for the Yankees -- Tanaka is 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 58 innings, with just seven walks -- and already there is talk of Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP Awards for the 25-year-old right-hander, who hasn't lost a regular-season game since August 2012, nearly two-year span over which he has gone 33-0.

Tanaka spoke briefly at his locker before the Yankees' Sunday doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he charitably said he felt MLB hitters were better than the hitters he faced in Japan, and that the quality of play was generally higher here than in the Nippon Baseball League.

But for the first time, he bristled slightly when a reporter asked him if he had had any doubts about his ability to pitch effectively in the United States.

"If I had [any] doubt I would have never came here," he said through his interpreter. "Then I would just be playing in Japan."

He also said that he feels he has yet to throw any pitch in his wide repertoire as well as he would like to, which should come as chilling news to U.S. hitters, who haven't been able to do much with what he has been throwing so far.

But even in a 10-minute conversation, it was clear that Tanaka has shed a lot of the reticence he showed in his early days as a Yankee, if only because he has learned in his short tenure as a big-leaguer that not only does he belong here, but he dominates here, much as he did in Japan.

When he was asked, jokingly, if he felt like he would never lose again, Tanaka answered with dead seriousness.

"I don’t think about it," he said. "Obviously I go out there and try to win games, but the win records that I have is something that I had in japan, so I think that’s something different from what I have over here, so that’s how I look at it."

And when he was asked if he could even remember the last time he lost a regular-season game, this is all he said. "Yes. Of course I remember."

He was not smiling, and he made it clear it is not anything he would like to experience again any day soon.

Tanaka vs. the Cubs may be a mismatch, and so, too, might Tanaka to the Cubs have been.

But Tanaka and Wrigley? A classic matchup of the old and the new, of a splendid relic of baseball's past and, the Yankees hope, a building block for their immediate future.

Up now: Two games yesterday, two Rapid Reactions. I've got Game 1, and Kieran Darcy has Game 2. Plus, a variety of blogs from the post-twin bill clubhouse, and a blog on the dire state of Yankees starting pitching.

Later: The club has the day off, but I don't. I'll examine Girardi's return to Chicago three years after the Cubs put the full-court press on him to become their manager.
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

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.51 135 129
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .293
HRM. Teixeira 17
RBIM. Teixeira 48
RB. Gardner 59
OPSJ. Ellsbury .778
ERAM. Tanaka 2.51
SOM. Tanaka 135