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On big stage, Yankees Masahiro Tanaka looks like a beast again

NEW YORK -- Lights, camera ... action on all of his pitches.

With the stage large, facing Nationals ace Max Scherzer on Tuesday, Masahiro Tanaka again looked like the Cy Young-worthy starter the baseball world saw in the first 14 major league starts of his rookie year.

Since then, news about Tanaka has mostly centered around his struggles, his slightly torn ligament in his right elbow, his strained forearm and his wrist tendinitis. But, in his second start since coming off the disabled list, Tanaka again looked just like he did when he raced out to a 1.99 ERA in those electrifying first 14 starts in '14.

While not the most quotable man on this earth, Tanaka is a showman. He loves the spotlight, so sharing the mound opposite Scherzer meant something to him.

He got the best of his fellow ace, going seven innings, allowing just a Bryce Harper homer -- just one of five hits -- while striking out six and walking none. He threw 87 pitches -- an incredible 63 were strikes -- in the New York Yankees' seventh straight win, a 6-1 victory over the Nationals.

"I think he enjoys the stage," Joe Girardi said. "I do. I think that is one of the reasons he came to New York. I think he likes the competition and the excitement of pitching here. I think he likes it."

Tanaka came after the Yankees paid him $155 million, which seemed like money very well spent around this time last year. Since then, though, Tanaka has spent nearly 15 weeks on the DL (10 last year and almost five recently), making some feel like it was inevitable that Tommy John surgery was around the corner.

The Yankees have kept their belief in their doctors and Tanaka's ability, believing and praying Tanaka can remain healthy. While things could change as quickly as Tanaka's next start, Tanaka all of a sudden has it all working again.

He reached 95 mph once with his fastball, but stayed consistently in the 93 range. He commanded all of his pitches, making it so he didn't have to rely on his splitter in two-strike counts as the Nationals made quick outs. The final score belies that it was tied at one as late as two outs in the bottom of the seventh when Tanaka was done for the night.

Tanaka started in style, retiring the first nine Nats. That gave him a total of 22 straight batters set down, extending back to the Seattle win last week.

"He's a pro," Brian McCann said.

McCann agreed that Tanaka looks like the dominant guy everyone watched a year ago. The very-good-but-not-great pitcher who doubted his velocity to start this season has been transformed back into an ace his first two starts following the five-week respite.

"It is very similar," Girardi said of the the last two starts compared to Tanaka of a year ago. "You talk about the efficiency in those two starts. That is as efficient as he has ever been."

Tanaka has allowed just two runs in the 14 innings since he returned. He improved to 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

Tanaka is not the only Yankee starter who's pitching well. They have allowed two or fewer runs in eight straight starts. But Tanaka's two starts are the biggest of them all. Pairing him with Michael Pineda is an enticing thought for the regular season and beyond.

On Tuesday, Tanaka had a huge opponent.

"I knew who I was going up against today," Tanaka said.

Tanaka dominated. The question, of course, remains if his elbow will hold up. That is an unknown. What is known at the moment is that if he is healthy, Tanaka looks as good as new.