No house calls, not even for Tanaka

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
2:19
AM ET


CLEVELAND -- The Yankees invested seven years and $155 million in Masahiro Tanaka. They have worked their schedule around his, making sure to give him an extra day's rest before as many starts as possible -- nine of his 18 starts came on longer-than-usual rest -- and reporters seeking to interview him can't do so directly. They must go through not even Yankees PR but a gantlet of Tanaka's own media relations people.

Yes, the Yankees' 25-year-old ace gets the star treatment all around.

Well, almost all around.

This week, if he needs to see the Yankees' team doctor -- and he most assuredly does -- Tanaka is going to have to get on an airplane and fly six hours across the country to do it.

It seems that between now and Monday, all the nation's leading orthopedic surgeons have converged on Seattle for the annual meeting of the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine. Yankees team physician Chris Ahmad is among them. So is James Andrews, the country's leading authority on Tommy John surgery.

And apparently, none of them are about to budge, not even for one of the best pitchers in baseball and the undisputed ace of the Yankees' pitching staff.

There is a lesson in here somewhere, and I think it is this: Parents, don't raise your children to be pitchers. Send them to medical school instead, preferably specializing in sports medicine. Clearly, these guys don't make house calls for anyone.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Brian D. Kersey/Getty ImagesFirst, a trip to the DL. Now, a cross-country flight to Seattle to see the Yanks' team doctor? Oy.
"That's why CC [Sabathia] can't see Dr. Andrews until Monday," a befuddled Joe Girardi said. "It seems that every orthopedic surgeon is in Seattle right now for a conference."

They must be having a grand old time. Meanwhile, the Yankees don't know for sure when, or even if, Tanaka will pitch again this season, and they won't until they get an answer from Ahmad, followed by an obligatory second opinion, probably from Andrews.

The news that Tanaka, a leading candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards after his first 14 big league starts, had been flown back to New York for an MRI on his pitching elbow following a subpar performance in a 5-3 Yankees loss to the Indians on Tuesday night was shocking enough.

But the fact that the only real star on the Yankees roster this season has to schlep 3,000 miles to see a doctor -- and not just any doctor, but the Yankees' team physician -- bordered on mind-boggling.

However, it was only the latest bizarre bit of news in a day that began in catastrophe (the Tanaka MRI was first reported by the New York Post about 3:30 p.m.) and ended nearly nine hours later with a minor triumph, a 5-4 victory over the Indians, clinched by Jacoby Ellsbury's home run in the top of the 14th inning.

In between, we learned not only that Tanaka might be done for the season -- elbow soreness is often an indicator of a torn ulnar collateral ligament and a precursor to season-ending Tommy John surgery -- but also that for at least three days Brett Gardner had been suffering from lower abdominal soreness suspected to be a sports hernia (it wasn't) and, later, that Carlos Beltran had fouled a ball off his face before the game in the batting cage and suffered two small facial fractures and a possible concussion.

After all that, it was tough to get overly excited about a marathon victory that ended a minute before midnight, defeating another team struggling to stay at or above the .500 mark.

Still, there were some positives to be gleaned. For starters, the newest Yankee starter, Brandon McCarthy, weathered a rocky first inning, made worse by an uncharacteristic throwing error by Mark Teixeira that resulted in three unearned runs. McCarthy settled down and delivered 6 2/3 solid innings, an effort that at the time seemed to be a bullpen saver.

It turned out not to be, but first, there was Teixeira atoning for his misplay with two long home runs that gave the Yankees a 4-3 lead in the fifth inning. After the Indians came back to tie it in the bottom of the fifth, whatever help McCarthy had given the bullpen evaporated with the Yankees' offense, which followed Teixeira's second home run with 8 2/3 scoreless innings.

That gave the bullpen, which expected to have the night off, a chance to shine. Dellin Betances pitched an overpowering eighth inning, with two strikeouts. Adam Warren pitched well for an inning and a third. Shawn Kelley, showing the form he had displayed before the back injury that sent him to the DL in May, retired all five hitters he faced and struck out two. And Chase Whitley, just removed from the rotation in favor of Shane Greene, turned in two solid innings, including three K's, to earn the win.

Only David Huff, who faltered in the 10th and walked all three hitters he faced, and David Robertson, who allowed the tying run to reach second before he got the final out on a screaming liner off the bat of Michael Brantley, provided anxious moments.

"That’s a huge hit by Jake," Girardi said. "It’s a long night, and it’s a good win. That’s a tough game to lose for either side."

Not nearly as tough as the loss of Tanaka, however. Tanaka was as close to money in the bank as the Yankees had this season before his recent slide. After starting 11-1, Tanaka has lost three of his past four starts, and his ERA has risen from 1.99 to 2.51, while his strikeouts per nine innings plummeted from 10.2 to 6.67.

Seventeen times he took the baseball, and 13 times the Yankees won. With anyone else starting, the team's record is 33-40. Clearly, the Yankees minus Tanaka are a team minus a shot at October baseball.

That is why the Yankees' inability or unwillingness to summon Ahmad home immediately came as a bit of a surprise, to say the least. A team source said late Wednesday night that sending Tanaka to Seattle was in fact beneficial because "anyone he might need to see in any capacity will be out there." Clearly, while they have had no problem with Sabathia waiting until Monday to see Andrews about the degenerative changes in his right knee, the Yankees want someone to look at Tanaka's elbow ASAP.

They already have a clue, of course, about what is going on inside Tanaka's golden arm because all MRI results are read immediately by a qualified radiologist trained to know what he or she is seeing. But it is team protocol to have the club's orthopedist give his own interpretation of the results, as is an almost mandatory second opinion. Normally, this is all done in a matter of hours, especially in the case of a player as valuable as Tanaka.

This time, the Yankees and their anxious fans will have to wait a day or so, while their prized pitcher spends his day traveling for an examination that simply cannot wait for a conference to end.

Notes: Beltran, looking surprisingly un-swollen in the face, said he felt "a little dizzy and light-headed" after a ball he hit ricocheted off the L-screen in the indoor batting cage and hit him in the nose. "You don't expect that to happen when you're practicing," he said. "I had a headache all night, but I feel better now. Hopefully I can be back soon, but it's not my decision." Beltran indicated the club was worried he had also suffered a concussion but need not. "When it happened, yes, I felt pain, sore and lightheaded, but all that has gone away. I feel good." ... Ellsbury's home run, on an 0-2 pitch, was his second of the trip. He had tapped Ricky Nolasco for one July 6 in Minneapolis. ... There were 25 strikeouts in the game, 13 by the Yankees. Ten came courtesy of three players: Brendan Ryan (4), Zoilo Almonte (3) and Ichiro Suzuki (3).
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
.282 8 47 49
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Teixeira 17
RBIM. Teixeira 48
RB. Gardner 62
OPSB. Gardner .768
WM. Tanaka 12
ERAM. Tanaka 2.51
SOM. Tanaka 135