Tanaka capable of big things, carrying Yanks
Righty bounces back from first MLB loss, beats White Sox to improve to 7-1
CHICAGO -- One win down for Masahiro Tanaka -- and another 41 starts until his next regular-season loss?
Silly question, sure. But with a pitcher as talented, confident, driven, focused and successful as Tanaka, you better keep an open mind about exactly what he is capable of doing in the Major Leagues.
On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Chicago, eight miles away from Wrigley Field, where the Cubs ruined his perfect record last Tuesday, the $175 million Japanese pitcher demonstrated why he might just pitch the Yankees into the playoffs.
He shut down one of baseball's most productive lineups in one of the best parks for hitters -- although it is worth noting the White Sox were without Jose Abreu and the wind was blowing in softly off Lake Michigan. So there.
But mostly the tough day for Chicago hitters spoke to the guy who was on the mound for the first 6 2/3 innings.
"I feel good every time he takes the mound,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He finds a way to get it done. I thought he pitched another good game today, got out of trouble with some double-play balls. You have to get those as well. He gave us some distance and did a good job.''
There is nothing particularly spectacular about his final pitching line (6 2/3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 SO), but if you witnessed the 7-1 victory, you know Tanaka did what the big horses do -- pretty much denying the White Sox hope after he was given an early lead by Derek Jeter and other teammates.
Tanaka (7-1) did seem to tire the third time around the order, but then he got strikeouts when he needed them. Conor Gillaspie, the left-handed-hitting third baseman, was the only White Sox hitter who looked comfortable against him. He went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles and an RBI against Tanaka; the rest of the lineup was 3-for-20.
This marked the 10th consecutive quality start for Tanaka. He's the first Major League pitcher to start his career in that fashion since Montreal's Steve Rogers in 1973, and the first Yankees pitcher to do it since at least 1914.
No wonder Girardi feels good when he's on the mound.
This was only the fourth time that Tanaka was starting on four days' rest -- one day fewer than the normal schedule in Japan. Girardi acknowledged that Tanaka might have gotten tired late in his 118-pitch afternoon. But Tanaka denied that he was winded at any point.
"No fatigue,'' he told reporters through his interpreter.
And no surprise he would say that, either.
Tanaka is a very proud man. You don't have to listen to him long to know that. Some might have had questions about how well he would do in the Major Leagues, but he was not one of those people.
Girardi talked earlier in the week about how much Tanaka demands from himself, a trait that Girardi has seen in other great players. The margin of error for the best is always small, and that's the way it is with Tanaka, who carried the Rakuten Golden Eagles to a Japan Series championship last year.
Facing the Cubs for the second time, Tanaka wasn't himself Tuesday at Wrigley Field. He struck out seven in six innings but gave up eight hits, with the Cubs doing a good job laying off his splitter, which starts at the bottom of the strike zone and dives. His defense didn't help him much either, with Mark Teixeira making an error, Mike Olt crushing a shot past a drawn-in Jeter and Luis Valbuena getting a pair of hits to left field, defying Girardi's shift.
It was an impressive showing for the Cubs' hitters, and Tanaka took the setback hard. Like many great pitchers before him -- Roger Clemens jumps to mind -- Tanaka refused to give batters any credit for their success, saying, "All my balls, my pitches, went to a location which was easy for the batters to hit.''
Tanaka, who had gone 34-0 in 42 regular-season starts since Aug. 19, 2012, seemed genuinely stunned to have lost a game. He said on Sunday that he was "disappointed'' but not necessarily angry about having his streak ended.
He was asked how the loss affected him.
"It's hard to say,'' he said. "I think, obviously, with the loss against the Cubs, I did really want to go out there and get us a win. That's pretty much all I can say.''
The Yankees won't have CC Sabathia back until July, if then. They will learn this week if Carlos Beltran needs surgery to repair a bone spur in his elbow. The age of their team, the fragile balance that is their existence, is never far from view.
But Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have built a bullpen that is a weapon. Girardi uses the players he has brilliantly and is tireless in his preparation. With Tanaka, he might have a trump card that can carry him a long way, maybe even to the American League East title.
It's too bad George Steinbrenner isn't around to appreciate Tanaka. Like the old man himself, this is a guy who does not like losing.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.