Masahiro Tanaka shines in debut

Updated: March 1, 2014, 8:09 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka threw two scoreless innings in his spring debut with the New York Yankees, striking out three in a 4-0 exhibition win Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

In a game televised live in the early-morning hours in Japan and that took place in front of a packed house at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the 25-year-old Tanaka also allowed a pair of singles in his 31-pitch outing.

"I was nervous, but it was a good nervous," said Tanaka, who was most pleased he didn't walk anyone.

The Yankees signed Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract in hopes that he can be a young anchor in their rotation for seasons to come. Even though the team has made a concerted effort to limit the expectations and distractions for the right-hander, it hasn't been able to dim the spotlight over two continents.

Saturday was no different. When Tanaka stepped to the mound to begin the fifth, he received a loud ovation with many of the fans standing. He quickly got up 0-2 before allowing a lined single to Darin Ruf on a 94 mph fastball.

Tanaka retired the next two batters on fly balls before ending the inning by unleashing another 94 mph fastball, on a 3-2 pitch, on which Cesar Hernandez swung and missed.

To start the sixth, Tanaka struck out Ben Revere on three pitches, finishing off the center fielder with his renowned splitter that dropped late.

"That split is dirty," Yankees teammate CC Sabathia said.

After allowing an 0-2 single to Ronny Cedeno, Tanaka struck out Domonic Brown swinging on a high 89 mph cutter. He ended the inning by getting Kelly Dugan to fly out.

Tanaka's 31 pitches were four fewer than the Yankees had allotted for him. His catcher, Francisco Cervelli, said that Tanaka seemed calm, like he had pitched in the majors before, while manager Joe Girardi thought it was important for Tanaka to put the first outing behind him.

"It is the place probably where he is at the most peace," Girardi said. "Not having to answer questions. He is able to do his work. I think it was important for him to get it under his belt. Next time, he will be a starter."

Girardi was unsure when Tanaka will pitch next.

The spring training game began at 3 a.m. Sunday in Japan, but that did not stop TV stations there from broadcasting the contest, which featured Tanaka alongside others Japanese greats from the present and past.

[+] EnlargeMasahiro Tanaka
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMasahiro Tanaka received a rousing ovation after throwing two scoreless innings in his spring debut.

Tanaka was preceded on the mound by Hiroki Kuroda. Ichiro Suzuki played right field. And Hideki Matsui, who helped recruit Tanaka to the Yankees, threw batting practice in the pregame.

Kuroda said it was probably the most watched spring training game in Japan's history.

The focus on Tanaka's first exhibition pitches as a Yankee made slimmed-down Sabathia's first preseason start and Derek Jeter's second appearance of the spring part of the day's undercard. It is very unusual for the retiring Jeter not to be the main event.

"I had to do a lot of things to get him under the radar," Girardi said.

During his appearance, #TanakaTime was trending in New York on Twitter.

Tanaka's every move has been monitored since he signed his lucrative deal with the Yankees in January.

Led by general manager Brian Cashman, the club has tried to diminish expectations, pointing out the size of the contract was a result of the marketplace for a 25-year-old with talent.

Cashman said Tanaka could be a No. 3 starter, and Girardi has not decided yet whether Tanaka will start the third regular-season game in Houston or the fourth in Toronto.

Tanaka's side and bullpen sessions have been events, with each of the seven pitches (four-seam and two-seam fastballs, splitter, cutter, curveball, changeup and slider) in his repertoire being dissected to try to measure the amount of success he will have in the majors.

The Yankees have set up different rules compared with other pitchers to try to limit the distractions as Tanaka prepares.

Tanaka has not seemed affected by the scrutiny. He deals with two sets of press corps -- one from Japan and one from the United States -- talking to each daily and not seeming overwhelmed.

Although Tanaka's debut was a big deal across two continents, it was spring training as usual for many of his teammates. Many arrived Saturday morning not even knowing Tanaka would be on the mound in the afternoon.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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