Could Tanaka be back by Sept. 12?

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
7:33
PM ET
DETROIT -- Masahiro Tanaka will throw three innings and 45 pitches to a couple of his own teammates on the field at Comerica Park on Thursday morning before the series finale between the Yankees and Tigers.

The hitters have yet to be announced, but it will probably be Zelous Wheeler and Brendan Ryan, or players of that ilk, for Tanaka's first real air-out session since he went on the disabled list July 9 with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that usually requires Tommy John surgery and a year-long recovery.

But if all goes well, Tanaka will be back pitching for the Yankees in a couple of weeks. And if all goes really well, the date of his return could very well be Sept. 12, when the Yankees play a doubleheader against the Orioles in Baltimore, necessitated by a rainout on Aug. 12.

[+] EnlargeTanaka
AP Photo/Steve NesiusBarring any setbacks, Masahiro Tanaka is on track to return to the mound before the season ends.
Joe Girardi, of course, refuses to project beyond Thursday's sim game, but the typical Yankees progression for rehabbing pitchers is to gradually increase their workload until they have thrown between 75 and 90 pitches in a game. Reading between the lines of what Girardi said about Tanaka before Wednesday's game against the Tigers, that could require as few as three rehab starts.

“You obviously feel better that it’s going to happen, but I still talk about the intensity of a major league game compared to a minor league game or a simulated game," Girardi said. "Those are the hurdles that you have to go through.”

Since the minor league season ends on Sept. 1, the Yankees will not have the option of sending Tanaka out on a minor league rehab assignment the way they did with Michael Pineda. He is likely to stay with the team -- the Yankees return home for 11 days after Sunday's game in Toronto -- and throw to teammates three or four times in total before the Yankees determine he is ready to go.

And considering need -- the Yankees are still in the playoff hunt -- and the fact that Tanaka's absence was not nearly as long as Pineda's, who was also coming back from a lost season due to shoulder surgery, it is more likely Tanaka will need three sim games, not four. Generally speaking, the Yankees like to increase a rehabbing pitcher's workload by 15 pitches each time out. That means 45 pitches tomorrow, 60 pitches five days later and 75 pitches five days after that.

That would line him up to start one of the games of the doubleheader at Camden on Sept. 12, a possibility Girardi did not address, although he did acknowledge that Tanaka might not need as much buildup time as other pitchers after a layoff.

"The thing with Tanaka was, he had not sat in an extremely long time. He was built up," Girardi said. "And in the month of September, you have more relievers, too, so you can play it a little differently."

This, of course, is assuming that all goes well during the rehab and that Tanaka suffers no setbacks, which Girardi cautioned would end any hope of him pitching at all this year.

"I think you plan it out, and it's either going to work or it's not going to work," Girardi said. "As long as you're having steps in the right direction, it's working. That doesn't mean that it's a guarantee. It's not like rehabbing a hamstring or something like that where you can have a setback, and we've got to set him down. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. If you have a setback, it probably means surgery."

But Girardi is not thinking in terms of setbacks. He is thinking about finishing up the season with a least three-fifths of the rotation he began the season with.

"We got Michael back," he said, "and we’re hoping we get Tanaka back here pretty soon, too."
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 22
RBIB. McCann 71
RB. Gardner 84
OPSB. Gardner .760
WM. Tanaka 13
ERAH. Kuroda 3.77
SOM. Tanaka 139