Tanaka's bad call costs Yankees a game

June, 29, 2014
Jun 29
12:33
AM ET
NEW YORK -- For Masahiro Tanaka, the learning curve continues and the adjustment period is far from over.

Even though he is 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA, a front-runner for the AL Rookie of the Year and a contender for the AL Cy Young, that much was evident Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, when a transcendent performance was ruined not so much by one pitch, but by one decision.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonMasahiro Tanaka's choice to go with a fastball against Mike Napoli proved foolish.
The decision by Tanaka to eschew throwing the splitter, the pitch with which he had made Mike Napoli look foolish in his two previous at-bats, in favor of throwing him a fastball, cost him and the Yankees a game.

Depending on what happens in Sunday night's game, it might wind up costing them a series, too.

And if nothing else, it should cost Tanaka the autonomy to call his own pitches, a privilege generally afforded a veteran or an ace, or preferably, both.

By Tanaka's admission, catcher Brian McCann called for a splitter when the count reached 1-2 on Napoli with two out in the ninth inning and the Yankees and Red Sox locked into a 1-1 game. Tanaka shook him off.

So McCann called for the slider. Tanaka shook that off, too.

He wanted to throw the fastball, and he was going to throw the fastball.

Problem was, Napoli wanted him to throw the fastball, too.

And even though it came in at 96 mph, Tanaka's fastest pitch of the night, Napoli was delighted to see it, and even though he was a millisecond late on the swing, he still got enough of the barrel on it to drive the ball on a sizzling line into the first row of seats beyond the right-field fence.

Napoli made his enjoyment clear as he returned to the Red Sox dugout. "What an idiot!" he shouted in his exuberance. "He threw me a fastball! What an idiot!"

Napoli's language may have been harsh, but his judgment was correct. There was no earthly reason to throw Napoli a fastball there, even if Tanaka had hit the spot he was aiming for, high and away, because there was no earthly reason to go away from what had been working for him all night, and what had worked twice against Napoli.

In his cryptic fashion, Joe Girardi admitted as much when he said, "He did have a lot of success with the split, so I’m not sure -- it’s not where he’s trying to throw it. He made a mistake with location so you got to live with it and you got to learn from it and you go from there."

McCann, who confirmed that the fastball was neither his first nor his second choice in that situation, refused to disagree with Tanaka's decision. "There's no wrong pitch with Tanaka," he said. "Every pitch he throws is the right pitch."

But when he was asked if he had considered going out to the mound to speak to Tanaka after the second shake, McCann said something very revealing: "No. He's in full control of what he's doing."

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonNapoli's solo shot in the ninth put the Red Sox ahead of the Yankees.
Which may mean that a 25-year-old MLB rookie with all of 16 starts under his belt is being treated as if he were a 10-year veteran.

Or it may mean that the language barrier between McCann and Tanaka prevents that kind of in-depth conversation from taking place on the field.

Or it could simply be that in the league Tanaka comes from, a pitch thrown as well as he threw that last one is a guaranteed out. If he hadn't known it before, Tanaka learned that here it sometimes becomes a game-winning home run.

In any case, it is clear that someone other than Tanaka should have taken charge of the situation.

While it is true that Tanaka is a "rookie" by MLB designation only, achieved the status of rock star in his seven seasons in Japan, and has shown the ability to be a dominant starter in this league, he is still a comparative newbie to U.S. ball.

And you can bet that had it been Vidal Nuno, Chase Whitley or David Phelps on the mound, McCann damned well would have paid a visit to him to discuss the wisdom of waving a lamb chop under the lion's nose.

McCann might have done it even if the pitcher was Hiroki Kuroda. Even CC Sabathia might have had a mound visit in the same situation.

But for some reason, McCann deferred to Tanaka, and as a result, the game was lost.

Of course, Napoli's home run was the not the only reason the Yankees lost, and probably not even the biggest. Once again, their "offense" failed to fire, managing five hits and one run -- unearned -- off Jon Lester. As a result, the Yankees didn't have a lot of scoring chances, and they made the least of the ones they did have. Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop to strand a runner at second in the first inning, and in the sixth, they managed to string together three straight singles off Lester and still not score, because Brett Gardner got thrown out stealing after leading off with a hit.

There was a two-out single by Brian Roberts in the seventh, a Derek Jeter double play, keyed by a great play by Dustin Pedroia, after a leadoff walk to Gardner in the eighth, followed by a Jacoby Ellsbury single, and that was about it.

The only run they did score came as the result of an error by SS Stephen Drew, a hit batter, a sacrifice and a groundout by Jeter. It's tough for any pitcher, even one as good as Tanaka, to win with that kind of lack of support.

But working with that slim a margin for error necessitates the most delicate and precise judgment, and for all that Tanaka had on the mound tonight, that is the one area in which he failed.

"I just wanted to go hard outside with my fastball," Tanaka said. "I wanted to show the batter a fastball there even if it was not in the strike zone. I wanted to set him up for a breaking ball on the next pitch."

Judging by Napoli's previous at-bats and his reaction to his final one, he did not need to be set up. Against his wildest wishes, he got teed up instead.

Now, instead of looking at the possibility of a sweep Sunday night, one that might have buried the listless Red Sox once and for all, the Yankees may have given them new life. A win in the series finale and maybe they start to believe they aren't quite out of this thing yet. After all, it's still only June and instead of leaving New York seven games back of the Yankees, they might be able to cut the margin to only four.

That's why this was a big loss, and Tanaka's decision a big mistake.

The Yankees might not have gone on to win the game had Tanaka kept Napoli in the park, but the fact that he didn't insured they would lose it.

His line for the night -- nine innings pitched, seven hits and two earned runs allowed, with one walk and eight strikeouts -- was certainly good enough to win on most nights, and viewed strictly on paper looks like the worst kind of heartbreaker.

But knowing that the outcome came down to one of 116 pitches thrown -- and not the one his catcher or his manager would have chosen for him -- makes it that much worse.

Tanaka's adjustment to major league baseball may appear to be seamless, and in many respects it has been. But Saturday night's game shows that it is still a little too early to call it complete.
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