CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Yes, there is still a lot of spring training to go, probably six more starts, and in Joe Girardi's famous question from a couple of years back regarding Ivan Nova: "What if he gets hit by a bus?"
But assuming that will not happen, Masahiro Tanaka will be the New York Yankees' Opening Day starter, and he took an important step with two scoreless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday in his first outing against hitters since last October's wild-card loss to the Houston Astros.
"He started Game 1 of the playoffs for us, so the idea is that he’s our No. 1 starter," Girardi said. "But you’ve got to see how he does, where he is physically."
Tanaka needed some help, in the form of a nice diving snag by Rob Refsnyder in his audition to become the backup third baseman. It was a stop that he turned into a key second-inning double play. It wasn't always pretty for Tanaka, especially when he walked the next batter to keep the inning alive. But he got David Lough to swing over an 84-mph slider to end the threat, the inning, and his day. Tanaka's final line: two innings, two hits, no runs, two strikeouts, and one walk.
If ever there is a time in the baseball season when individual performance is more important than team results, spring training is that time. And Tanaka's performance -- as well as that of Refsnyder at third -- was a lot more important than the outcome of the game, which was won by the Phillies, 6-5, at Bright House Field.
"I'm pretty satisfied with how I pitched," Tanaka said, before enumerating a short list of things he was not satisfied with.
"I had some runners on base and I was missing my spots here and there," Tanaka said. "I think that was some of the not good parts of today. But I think as we go deeper into, get into more games, that should become better."
As usual, Tanaka did not light up the radar gun. Most his pitches where in the 87-89 range, although he hit 92 twice in the second inning. But his splitter and cutter looked sharp, and induced both of his swinging strikeouts. Of course, the ultimate verdict will not be rendered until Monday, when both Tanaka and Girardi agreed would be the moment of truth regarding the condition of Tanaka's elbow. Tanaka underwent surgery to shave down a bone spur in the off-season.
"To me, the most important thing is that he feels good tomorrow," Girardi had said before the game.
"For me also, just to see how I feel the next day is important," Tanaka said.
Although he has seldom acknowledged feeling any pain his elbow before the surgery, Tanaka allowed on Sunday that his elbow now "felt better" since the surgery, which was not related to the partially-torn UCL he has been pitching with since July of 2014, his first season with the Yankees.
"It's been there for a while but I can't tell you exactly when it started," he said. "I didn't necessarily feel it on any one pitch, it was more in-between starts where I felt the inflammation. It took a little bit longer for it to heal."
Aside from Tanaka's first start of the spring, the game was also a showcase for Gary Sanchez, who is trying to make the team as a backup catcher, and Refsnyder, whose first chance at third base since college turned out to be a key play in the game. With runners on first and second, the ball was hit sharply by Carlos Ruiz and seemed headed for left-field and at least one run. But Refsnyder ranged to his left and snagged the one-hopper, and after a moment's hesitation, started the 5-4-3 double play.
"That was huge," Tanaka said. "It got a good part of the bat, there was some velocity on the ball, so I thought it was huge that he made that play for us."
But not nearly as huge for the Yankees as Tanaka waking up healthy on Monday morning, and standing on the mound with the ball in his hand on April 4.
"Yeah, that's basically the goal," Tanaka said. "That's what I'm trying to do."
Ref-erendum: In addition to his fine play in the second inning, Refsnyder singled to start the third and scored on Starlin Castro's single. He also walked to lead off the fifth and stole second and third before being stranded. That run held up until the Phillies scored six times in the sixth off Chad Green and Branden Pinder.
Refsnyder, who lost his shot at winning the 2016 second base job when the Yankees traded for Castro, said he felt comfortable in his first game at third base. In addition to the double play, he also made a routine 5-3 in the fourth inning, and had to dash across the infield at least once when the Yankees went into a shift.
"When I first moved from right field to second base, I felt like 10 or 20 things were going on in my head at one time," Refsnyder said. "Now, it feels pretty natural. I kinda understand my role going forward with this team and I'm pretty much open to anything. Except for catching and pitching."
Uh-oh: In the bottom of the seventh, when with runners on first and second and one out, Phillies pinch-runner Angelys Nina took off for second -- only to find his teammate, Roman Quinn, standing on the bag. With nowhere to go, Nina waited as Yankees catcher Austin Romine sprinted from behind the plate to tag him out between first and second. It goes down in the books as a CS-2 unassisted.