Tanaka: The indispensable Yankee

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
10:00
AM ET
SEATTLE -- This is about as plain as I can put it: The only thing standing between the Yankees and a disastrous 2014 season is Masahiro Tanaka.

Every time he pitches, it seems, Joe Girardi and as many of Tanaka's teammates who can be rounded up after the game are asked variations of the same question: How much has Tanaka meant to this team in his first 10 weeks as a major leaguer?

But there is another more relevant question to be asked, one a lot of people would rather not even contemplate: Where might this team be, and what might its record look like, if Tanaka were not part of it? What if he had chosen to remain in Japan or to sign somewhere else or if the Yankees had chosen to take a pass on him, as they did with Yu Darvish three years ago?

The prospect is too frightening to think about.

Tanaka has now made 13 starts for the Yankees, and the Yankees are 11-2 in those games. In games started by anyone else, they are 22-29.

Clearly, even with Tanaka, the Yankees are just slightly better than mediocre.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsMasahiro Tanaka collected win No. 10 in Seattle.
Without him, they might have been a full-time train wreck, difficult to watch and impossible to look away from.

But now, no matter how badly the offense struggles, no matter how much the defense mangles the fundamentals, no matter how ordinary the rest of the starting rotation turns out to be, it is as close to a sure bet that every five days, the Yankees will be worth watching -- and better than that, almost guaranteed to win.

"He's been our go-to guy," Derek Jeter said after Tanaka shut down the Seattle Mariners Wednesday night 4-2 to run his record to 10-1, tied for the most wins in baseball. "He always gives us a great opportunity to win. You look forward to him being on the mound. He works quick, he throws strikes and he’s pretty much dominated since he's gotten here."

That pretty much says it all, and at the same time hardly scratches the surface of what kind of impact Tanaka has had on this team and this season.

Wednesday night, he was on his way to his best outing of the year, two outs away from his second complete-game shutout of his first big league season -- by contrast, it took Darvish, a terrific pitcher in his own right, 73 big league starts to get his first one, ironically on a Wednesday night -- having held the Mariners to just two hits through eight innings, striking out nine and walking just one.

Asked how he would approach Tanaka as a hitter, Jeter said, "I don't have to."

He did not sound the least bit disappointed about it.

Of course, it had to be Robinson Cano who would spoil Tanaka's line, with a two-run homer in the ninth that gave the illusion the game was somewhat close, but other than deprive him of the shutout, the blast did little to detract from the Yankees night.

This was a big-time performance from a big-time pitcher who has only been in this league, and this country, for a very short time.

Asked if Tanaka had in fact exceeded the expectations created by the enormous hype following his 24-0 season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon Baseball League in 2013, Joe Girardi said, "I think you'd have to say so. Obviously, he was unbelievable over there, but there's a lot of adjustments that he's had to make. I think that was our biggest concern, not, 'Could he compete at this level?' but the adjustments that he has had to make. He's done a fabulous job."

Not the least of those adjustments was learning to pitch not once a week, but every five days, an adjustment Tanaka has seemed to make seamlessly. Wednesday night, he was working with an extra day's rest as a result of Monday's rainout in Kansas City, and the advantage that gave him was almost unfair.

"If he keeps this up," Mark Teixeira said, "He’s going to have one of the greatest first years in baseball of any pitcher who’s ever played this game."

For three innings, the Mariners couldn't touch him but also couldn't lay off; of the 26 pitches Tanaka needed to get through the first three, 20 were strikes. It was swing or sit down. And by the sixth inning, it was swing and sit down. After not striking out anyone in the first two innings, Tanaka began fanning guys with abandon, two each in the third, fourth and fifth, all three in the sixth. Still, he got through seven innings on a stingy 79 pitches.

Meanwhile, the Yankees had scratched out a run in the third, and Teixeira's 11th home run of the season provided three more in the fifth. Tanaka got into a mini-jam in the eighth, allowing two hits, but it evaporated when he got Cole Gillespie to line into a double play. It seemed as if nothing could derail him from another complete-game shutout, which would have dropped his ERA to a ridiculous 1.83. But then came a first-pitch fastball to Cano, who drove it over the left-center-field fence for only his third home run of the season and first at Safeco, his new home field.

"You have to give Tanaka credit, his pitches really move and he locates them where he wants," Cano said. "He is as good as everyone says."

He has impressed everyone in major league baseball, it seems, with the exception of one: himself.

Asked what he could possibly find fault with aside from the pitch to Cano, Tanaka said, "I think a lot of my pitches were going right into the middle of the strike zone."

If so, the Mariners couldn't hit them. Still, even when Logan Morrison looked at a 95 mph fastball on the corner -- one of Tanaka's fastest pitches of the night -- to end the game, there was no joy on Tanaka's face. He was still bothered by Cano's home run, and whatever else eats away at him in what Jeter called his continuing "search for perfection."

"I know that he's very hard on himself," Girardi said. "There are players like that. I think what it does is it pushes him. That's how he gets the most out of what he has."

"I love it, I really do," Teixeira said. "It means the guy wants to keep getting better. And if he does, it’s going to be really good for us."

It already has been. Without Tanaka, the Yankees are possibly a bad team, and certainly a boring one. With him, they are a not-to-be-missed event once every five days.

"There are players every year you can say that about," Girardi said. "But he's been huge for us. You look at our record, he's got a third of our wins. He's been that guy for us."

The one guy the Yankees absolutely could not afford to be without.

Odds and ends: Jeter stole two bases in the game and became the oldest Yankee to have stolen two bases in a game in over a century. Informed of the feat, Jeter said, "You should have told me that earlier. I would have done it for you a while ago. Just because I haven't done something doesn't mean I can't do it."

Jeter also said he was bunting on his own in the third inning, when he fouled out with two runners on ... Jacoby Ellsbury's third-inning RBI single ran his hitting streak to 15 games ... Girardi said he would make a call to MLB to get clarification on why he was not able to challenge the foul-ball call on Ellsbury's ninth-inning grounder.

What's next: The finale of this three-game series, with the Yankees going for the sweep behind Chase Whitley (1-0, 2.42), who faces LHP Roenis Elias (5-4, 3.64). First pitch at 10:10 p.m.
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
13 2.47 139 134
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .271
HRB. McCann 22
RBIB. McCann 71
RB. Gardner 84
OPSB. Gardner .760
ERAH. Kuroda 3.77
SOM. Tanaka 139