Tanaka overpowers, wows Phillies

March, 1, 2014
3/01/14
6:17
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- He headed for the mound at exactly 2:13 p.m. in Tampa, not to mention 4:13 a.m. in Tokyo. And the Masahiro Tanaka era was off and running. Or at least off and jogging.

Photographers from two continents lurched into action. Fifty players hopped to the top step of the Yankees’ dugout.

About half of the 10,934 occupants of Steinbrenner Field rose to applaud. Three TV channels beamed the action back to Japan -- yeah, even at 4 in the morning.

So whatever this was or wasn't, it sure wasn't Just Another Day in the Life of Spring Training. After all, it isn't every day, even in the universe of the Yankees, that a $175 million man whom pretty much none of us have ever laid eyes on takes the mound. So what followed Saturday afternoon, for the next two innings, was as entertaining as the fourth game of spring training can possibly get.

Masahiro Tanaka
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMasahiro Tanaka received a rousing ovation after throwing two scoreless innings in his spring debut Saturday.
It was just two innings, 32 pitches and two zeroes on the scoreboard, on March 1. So on your list of Greatest Moments in Yankees history, this one will rank slightly below Don Larsen’s perfect game.

But we definitely saw enough in Tanaka’s two shutout innings -- three swinging strikeouts, no walks, a plummeting splitter, a 94 mph fastball with life, four or five other pitches that spun in all directions -- to get the feeling the fun was only beginning.

Just not for the hitters. We know because we asked them.

"I knew he had to be good," said the Phillies’ Domonic Brown, whose first confrontation with Tanaka ended up in a sixth-inning strikeout. "He didn't get all that money for no reason."

Excellent assumption. But Brown wound up in the midst of a first-hand research project on the reasons Tanaka got all that cash. And it didn't go well. He was pretty excited, he said, to jump ahead in the count, 1 and 0. He knew all about Tanaka’s fabled splitter. He even "geared up" for that splitter, he said. And then whaddya know, here it came.

"I recognized the split," he said. "It seemed like it would be a strike. Then the bottom fell out."

Oops. Brown took a mighty swing at what he thought he saw. The baseball, though, plummeted a foot below his bat. And if that’s what happens when a hitter is actually LOOKING for that splitter, and RECOGNIZING that splitter, we’d hate to see the hilarity that’s going to ensue when Tanaka throws that pitch to a man who has just made the mistake of looking fastball.

Then later, in the same at-bat, when Tanaka got to two strikes, Brown looked for the splitter again. Seemed like a good idea. Instead, he got an 89 mph cutter, up and in.

"That’s a pitch,” Brown said, "that nine times out of 10, I’m probably swinging at, especially with my style of hitting."

[+] EnlargeTanaka
Scott Iskowitz/ Getty ImagesAfter initial exposure, nobody relishes being on the business end of Tanaka's pitches.
But he couldn't hit that one, either. And down he went.

Then there was Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp. We’ll give him the Ugliest Hack of the Day award, for a funky first-pitch wave at a delivery he still hasn't identified -- or picked up on his radar screen.

"I have no idea what that first pitch he threw me was," Rupp said afterward. "I didn't even see it. My head was looking in left field.

"I thought he’d come at me with a heater," Rupp went on. "So I geared up for it -- and realized too late it wasn't [a heater]."

The good news for Rupp was that he did get a fastball one pitch later. The bad news was, he didn't square up that one, either, flying it softly to left. It may have been an 0-for-1 on the scorecard, but at least, he chuckled, "I got a little TV time in Japan."

Then there was Phillies leadoff hitter Ben Revere. Tanaka threw him three pitches. He swung at all three of them. And missed all three of them. He eventually punched out on an 0-2 splitter that disappeared on him somewhere between the mound and home plate.

Asked later what pitches he thought Tanaka had thrown him, Revere replied: "All of them."

When told that Tanaka said afterward he’d thrown seven different pitches, Revere laughed, "It seemed like I saw every single one of them" -- which was quite a feat in a three-pitch at-bat.

But let the record show that the first hitter Tanaka ever faced in the big leagues actually got a hit off him. That was Phillies first baseman Darin Ruf, who got down 0-2 in about three seconds, but then lined a down-and-away fastball to center for a soft single.

Asked what he’d tell his grandchildren about this historic moment, Ruf shook his head in mock sadness.

"I didn't realize it was that historic," he said. "Heck, I didn't even get the ball. ... If I need to tell my grandkids, I need the ball."

All right, so it wasn't that historic. But it WAS memorable -- even for the hitters who were supposed to be just getting their at-bats in, in the first week of spring training.

"It was a good experience," Ruf said. "It was a big-league at-bat in spring training, with all the hype coming in, and I knew the whole world would be watching. I had an entire half-inning to think about it. So it was good.

"I was excited for the at-bat," Ruf admitted. "Not that I’m not excited for every at-bat in spring training. But to know it was his first live at-bat in American professional baseball, I got a little bit more hyped than I would for a normal at-bat."

And that sums up this event perfectly. Had Masahiro Tanaka not walked to the mound on Saturday, this could have been any other day in the mellow world of spring training. Instead, it was more. Much more.

"Everyone in baseball pretty much knew about him before today," said Domonic Brown. "You couldn't help but hear about him all winter."

And on Saturday, the legend of Masahiro Tanaka came to life. Which was great news -- for everyone except the men who are going to have to spend the next seven months staring at him with a bat in their hands.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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