Tanaka shows he's human after all

July, 9, 2014
7/09/14
12:38
AM ET


CLEVELAND -- The pattern had been established early with Masahiro Tanaka: One start on what is considered "regular" rest here in the United States, four days between starts, and one start, and sometimes two, after an extra day of rest. And once, on two extra days of rest.

It had been that way since the start of the season in deference to the once-a-week pitching schedule Tanaka had followed for seven seasons in Japan, and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn't about to force his newest acquisition, who had quickly established himself as the ace of his injury-depleted rotation, to go cold turkey into the MLB way of doing things.

So for the first three months of his big league life, here was Masahiro Tanaka's schedule: One start on four days of rest in April, followed by one on six days, followed by another on five days, followed by one back on four days. In May, it was three on five days of rest, two on four days, carefully alternated. In June, it was the same thing, three out of five starts with an extra day's rest, and never did he go back-to-back on four days.

But sooner or later, the relentlessness of the schedule caught up with Girardi, and probably not coincidentally, the rest of the league started to catch up with Tanaka.

Tuesday night's game against the Indians was the first time Girardi had been forced to use Tanaka twice in a row on four days' rest, and the plan was that he would do it three straight times leading into the All-Star break, with his final start before the recess coming on Sunday.

But now, that plan has to be up in the air, if not about to be scuttled altogether.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
AP Photo/Tony DejakMasahiro Tanaka put up season-highs in runs (5) and hits (10) in a 5-3 loss to the Indians.
Because for the second straight outing, Tanaka's manager, and his teammates, were using the same strange word to describe him: human.

That is only news because, for the first 15 starts of his major-league career, Tanaka had been nothing short of superhuman.

And for all the talk about how "seamless" Tanaka's adjustment to the MLB way of doing things has been, this game exposed it for what it was: Just talk.

Because the truth is, until Tuesday night, Tanaka hadn't been asked to make the adjustment at all. The ones making the adjustment were the Yankees and Girardi, who were pulling every string possible to give Tanaka an extra day whenever they could.

This could explain why Girardi lost his cool last week when asked if he would consider skipping the struggling Vidal Nuno and pitch Tanaka on five days' rest against the Boston Red Sox. Nuno wound up pitching a great game and won. The next night, on five days of rest, Tanaka pitched a great game and lost when he served up a cookie to Mike Napoli.

Ten days later, it seems obvious why Girardi went momentarily ape. He may have sensed that asking Tanaka to pitch regularly on four days' rest was asking too much.

Obviously, all pitchers have bad days, even the greatest of all time.

But is it so strange to wonder if Tanaka's sudden dip into mortality is a direct result of his arm being asked to do something it had never done before in his professional career?

Even Girardi acknowledged the possibility: "It's hard to say. It's the first time I think he's had this many days in a row. It's an adjustment."

Tanaka denied feeling any added fatigue due to the different schedule. "Actually, I thought my fastball was a little better tonight," he said.

Instead, when asked if over his past four starts, of which he has lost three with a very un-Tanaka-like 4.25 ERA, whether the difference was in him or the hitters he is facing, he gave a lengthy answer that was translated as, "Maybe both."

He also, when asked to explain why he struggled Tuesday, answered rather cryptically, “I do understand the reason why I was struggling today, but it’s really difficult for me to tell you why that was.”

So it is officially a mystery why this pitcher who so dominated MLB the first three months of his career was so thoroughly dominated by the weak-hitting Cleveland Indians in Tuesday night's 5-3 loss, a game in which Tanaka gave up not only a 3-1 lead, but also a long home run to Nick Swisher on a 1-2 pitch, which used to be a hitter's death sentence.

On this night, it was an occasion for Tanaka to hang a slider that Swisher, who came into the game batting .198, deposited over the center-field fence with a runner aboard to give the Indians a 4-3, sixth-inning lead they never relinquished. Michael Brantley's solo homer in the seventh, on an 0-1 fastball clocked at 92 mph, was merely the cherry on the sundae.

"It's the first time we've ever seen him, so going up your first couple at-bats, you’re kind of feeling him out and seeing what he’s got," Swisher said. "The scouting report shows he has six different pitches. The biggest thing for us was to just hit the mistakes. That at-bat for my home run was a mistake and I was able to capitalize on that.”

But in truth, Tanaka was making mistakes from the beginning of the game, when he needed 24 pitches to get through the first inning in which he allowed a run on two hard-hit balls, the second a double by Brantley. His command of the strike zone was spotty at best; through his first 44 pitches, he had thrown an equal number of balls and strikes. He got into and out of trouble in the second inning, settled down through three, four and five, and came apart in the sixth and seventh.

It was the kind of performance the Yankees had become accustomed to getting from some of the other guys in their makeshift rotation, but not from Tanaka.

"You have a pretty good feeling when he's on the mound, definitely," Girardi said. "But tonight wasn't the night, so you move on to the next start. It happens. We know he's not going to be perfect. We understand that. We know how good he's been, but we know he's not going to be perfect."

In some ways, Tanaka is suffering by comparison with himself, because his first 15 starts were virtually beyond comparison. And once again, he got little to no help from the Yankees' offense, which looked as if it would knock Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer out in the second inning, only to allow him to work a full seven without managing another hit after Brian McCann's third-inning single. The last 20 Yankees to come to bat failed to get a hit, and their one scoring chance after the second inning died when Jacoby Ellsbury, who had reached on an embarrassing error by Swisher, committed the unpardonable sin of making the final out of the fifth inning by getting thrown out trying to steal third.

"I'm not sure what happened there," a baffled Girardi said.

He could have said the same thing about Tanaka, who has set the bar so high with his own early brilliance that any deviation is bound to cause concern. But an outing like Tuesday night's, coming on the heels of his July 3 outing in which he allowed four runs to the feeble Twins but managed to win a 7-4 game, could bring on outright panic, since it was the first time all year he had gone back-to-back games on four days of rest.

As of now, Tanaka is still expected to make his start against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, and really, he has got to be able to keep up a standard major league routine if his seven-year, $155 million contract is going to pay off for the Yankees.

"It's the first time that I think he's gone a couple of starts like this on five days," Girardi said, "And there's one more expected of him on Sunday."

Assuming he makes it -- and nothing should ever be assumed about anything concerning the Yankees -- it will be interesting to see which Masahiro Tanaka shows up on Sunday.

The one who, on extra rest, was dominant for the first three months of the season, or the one who was dominated Tuesday night.

Question: Do you think Girardi should start Tanaka on Sunday? Or should skip him and give him a 10-day rest until after the All-Star break?
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