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Masahiro Tanaka's Fortitude, Command Have Chance to Take Yankees Places

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Masahiro Tanaka's Fortitude, Command Have Chance to Take Yankees Places
Adam Hunger/USA Today

Here is what we see when we look at Masahiro Tanaka: an exotic curiosity, an unbeaten streak growing more incredible by the start and—whiff!—strikeouts stacking up like cordwood.

Here is what the Yankees see: stones. Giant, colossal…well, you know.

"One thing you can’t see on tape is his competitiveness," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild says. "His ability to adjust sticks out."

One thing Tanaka proved during his first month in the majors is that, flat-out, he is up to this challenge. He will not be intimidated.

His quirky streak is alive and riveting: He is unbeaten in his past 41 regular-season starts in the U.S. and Japan dating back to Aug. 19, 2012. Before touching down in the U.S., he set a Nippon Professional Baseball record by winning 28 consecutive decisions over 2012 and 2013.

So far, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman’s preseason proclamation that he viewed Tanaka as a No. 3 starter sounds as loony and comical as anything Yogi Berra ever uttered. Unless Cashman simply was attempting to deflect pressure from Tanaka at the time. Hmm...

First batter of Tanaka’s first game, Toronto’s Melky Cabrera, said hello with a home run. Welcome to the majors, Masahiro.

Next three batters went ground ball, strikeout, strikeout.

"Showed his character right there," first baseman Mark Teixeira says, recalling the Yankees’ 7-3 win that night.

Fourth inning three weeks later, in Tanaka’s baptism in Boston, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli doused him with back-to-back homers to trim the Yankees’ lead to 4-2. Tanaka calmly tiptoed through the rest of the inning and held the Sox scoreless the rest of the way.

"He’s a bulldog," Teixeira says. "Or whatever kind of adjective you want to use.

"He’s one of those guys you want out there. And he’s getting better ever since."

Following Friday’s 5-3 win in Milwaukee, Tanaka now is 5-0 with a 2.57 ERA.

Into Wednesday night's start against the Mets, his 58 strikeouts is a Yankees record through any pitcher's first seven games. And, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it ranks as the fifth-highest total for any pitcher through his first seven appearances since 1900, trailing only Kerry Wood (66), Herb Score (66), Jose DeLeon (62) and Stephen Strasburg (61).

Now this isn’t to say Tanaka will remain flawless and run his record toward the unbelievable-in-any-league 24-0 he hung last summer in Japan (with a 1.29 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles). Surely there will be bumps and misadventures somewhere up ahead.

Just, not now.

At least, not once he moves past the first two innings, during which he has surrendered a combined eight runs and 15 hits, including three homers.

Elsa/Getty Images

But, from innings three through eight? Tanaka has given up only seven runs and 27 hits—and only four homers.

Key thing right now is that, overall, whatever the inning, Tanaka is showing that he is everything the Yankees hoped he could be when they invested $155 million over seven years, plus the $20 million posting fee.

Different league, different culture, same results. So far, he is enjoying himself immensely.

"It’s been very fun for him," says Yoshiki Sato, Tanaka’s near-constant companion as translator and body man. "He’s having to make adjustments to the pitching day by day.

"He likes the challenge of major league baseball. He’s very excited."

And extraordinarily prepared. Last spring, during his between-starts sessions in the World Baseball Classic, word is that he threw with a major league baseball instead of a Japan League ball. The balls here are just a bit larger. Which has been a good match with Tanaka’s big...oh, hey, there’s the throwing program, too.

"He’s still in the process of getting used to a five-man rotation," Rothschild says. "That’s going to be an ongoing process. But his plan all along was to come and pitch here, and I think he had that in mind, and he was smart enough to learn and understand it."

When Rothschild sent Tanaka an offseason throwing program over the winter, the right-hander already had incorporated a program very similar to what the Yankees sent him.

That, though, still does not guarantee a fresh Tanaka in August and September given his time spent in Japan’s six-man rotations. That remains an enormous part of this transition, and it is what will keep the Yankees in watch-and-evaluate mode with him all summer.

"If we get to that point [where Tanaka shows signs of fatigue], we’ll see what we need to do," Rothschild says.

He throws two different fastballs—a two-seamer and a four-seamer—a splitter, a changeup and a curve. Both his knowledge and execution made an immediate impression on Brian McCann, who also signed with the Yankees as a free agent this winter. And McCann’s opinion of his new battery-mate has only become more positive since.

"His demeanor, his work ethic...he’s got the complete package," says McCann, who, like Teixeira, cites the right-hander’s quick recovery in the Boston game as a telling moment.

Sato, Tanaka’s interpreter, talks of how proud the pitcher is of his ability to focus. Rothschild speaks of the times Tanaka has returned to the dugout after allowing a big homer or hit without emitting any hint whatsoever that things had just gone wrong.

Teixeira speaks of baseball’s universal language and things that go far beyond the Japanese/English language divide. He should know: He sees it from his station at first base every fifth day.

"Everything moves," Teixeira says. "He doesn’t throw many things straight. He mixes it up. Hitters can’t rely on patterns.

"I couldn’t be more impressed with him."

 

Scott Miller covers MLB for Bleacher Report.

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