Tanaka could start 3rd or 4th game

Updated: February 28, 2014, 5:06 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Will he need his passport, or won't he?

The answer to that question will determine when, and against whom, Masahiro Tanaka makes his first major league start for the New York Yankees.

Manager Joe Girardi said Friday "it was a safe bet'' that the Japanese right-hander, who signed a seven-year, $155 million contract in January, would pitch either the third or fourth game of the season, following ace CC Sabathia and Tanaka's countryman Hiroki Kuroda.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMasahiro Tanaka, who's wowed in Yankees camp with his wide array of pitches, is in line to start the team's third or fourth game of the regular season.

The team's third game is on Thursday, April 3, against the Astros in Houston; the Yankees play the following night in Toronto against the Blue Jays.

"I want to see how [spring training] goes,'' Girardi said. "I think it's just fair to see how he's doing physically at the end of this, because that's one of the biggest adjustments he has to make.''

Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have been easing Tanaka into the flow because of the five-day rotation used in the majors; in Japan, pitchers start just once a week.

Tanaka will make his spring debut Saturday when the Yankees host the Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Sabathia will pitch the first two innings, followed by Kuroda for the next two. The earliest Tanaka will see action is the fifth because Girardi said he will bring in a reliever if either Sabathia or Kuroda is unable to get out of an inning.

"I wouldn't bring [Tanaka] into the middle of an inning,'' Girardi said.

Girardi wouldn't give a date for Tanaka's next spring start, and he refused to divulge how he would determine the date for his first regular-season start.

"Let's see what he does [in spring training] first,'' Girardi said.

Tanaka has impressed coaches and teammates in bullpen sessions and live batting practice with his wide repertoire -- he throws seven pitches -- and the sharp downward break on his split-finger fastball, which he considers his out pitch.

"I feel that it is important to get some swings and misses from that pitch,'' Tanaka said. "But going into [Saturday] I just want to see how batters react to it.''

Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles and won six more games in the postseason as his club won the Japan Series title. He was the most sought-after pitcher of the offseason after Rakuten decided to allow him to enter the posting system, and his arrival in camp has attracted a horde of Japanese media who have shadowed his every move.

Even Girardi acknowledges being curious as to how Tanaka's stuff will play in the majors.

"It's his first outing, so hopefully he keeps his emotions in check," he said. "That's what you worry about a little, guys trying to do too much. I'll be watching along with everybody else.''

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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