- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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BALTIMORE -- Masahiro Tanaka took another step toward what he hopes will be a return to the New York Yankees this season, throwing 10 pitches off flat ground in the outfield at Camden Yards before Wednesday night's Yankees-Orioles game.
Asked if he believed he would pitch again this year, Tanaka said, "I think I have a chance if everything progresses the way I want it to and we want it to.''
Tanaka has not pitched since July 8, when he left in the seventh inning of a start against the Cleveland Indians complaining of pain in his right elbow. A subsequent MRI revealed a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that often leads to Tommy John surgery.
But after consultations with three leading orthopedic surgeons, including Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad and Tommy John surgery specialist Dr. James Andrews, the Yankees opted to treat Tanaka with a combination of a platelet-rich plasma injection into the elbow followed by a controlled throwing program.
Tanaka began soft-tossing on August 4, three weeks after the injection, gradually increasing his distance from 60 to 90 to 120 feet. He even threw in the Camden Yards lobby on Tuesday after the Yankees-Orioles game was rained out.
But his throwing session on Wednesday was the first time he threw actual pitches, all fastballs, at a distance of approximately 60 feet to Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"It's feeling really good,'' Tanaka said through an interpreter. "Really, I didn't feel anything special compared to just regular tossing. I thought everything went well.''
For the first 14 stats of his big-league career, Tanaka -- who signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees this winter after going 24-0 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nipponese Baseball League in 2013 -- was a leading candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, with an 11-1 record, a 1.99 ERA, and 113 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings.
But his performance tailed off sharply in his next four starts, in which he went 1-3 with a 4.35 ERA. The Yankees say Tanaka did not complain of elbow pain until his final start, and he has said the injury occurred on his final pitch.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Tanaka was at the beginning of a long rehab progression that was not unlike what a pitcher goes through between the start of spring training to Opening Day, a period of approximately six weeks.
"Today was a step,'' he said. "Now the next step after that would be a bullpen. Then after that you start doing [batting practice]. I don't know when he'll do his first bullpen, but so far, so good.''
Like Tanaka, Girardi is also hopeful that the 25-year-old right-hander will be able to make some starts in September as the Yankees attempt to remain in the playoff hunt.
"We wouldn't be going through this if we didn't expect him to pitch for us,'' Girardi said. "I think once you start seeing him in games, whether it's a rehab game or a regular game, you'll have a better idea really of where he's at. But our hope is he'll pitch in September.''
Masahiro Tanaka took another step toward what he hopes will be a return to the New York Yankees this season, throwing 10 pitches off flat ground in the outfield at Camden Yards before Wednesday night's Yankees-Orioles game.