Heading into the third game of the 2014 Subway Series, the New York Yankees looked like a mediocre team on a collision course with the bottom of the AL East. After Masahiro Tanaka's dominance against the New York Mets at Citi Field, talk of doom and gloom around the Yankees will cease for a day or two.
If the Yankees want to navigate the long, grinding 162-game season with a top-heavy roster, injury-prone stars and a depleted pitching staff, they'll have to follow Tanaka's lead. Few knew exactly what to expect during the 25-year-old rookie year, but now brilliance is an adjective used on a start-by-start basis to describe the best player in New York, who the Yankees will need to lean on in order to compete this summer.
Whenever Tanaka takes the mound, the Yankees have looked like an unbeatable team this season. When he doesn't, the team is awful. Over the last 20 games, New York is 5-0 in Tanaka starts and 4-11 when anyone but the $175 million arm is on the hill.
On Wednesday evening, Tanaka pitched his first career complete game shutout in America, silencing a Mets lineup that had produced 21 runs over the first two games of this series. The raw numbers—9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 8 SO, 0 BB—illustrate the tale of dominance, but he was even better than that, considering the circumstances his team faced.
Beyond back-to-back losses to the Mets, New York's pitching staff entered the night a shell of the squad it was during spring training. With CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda on the disabled list, key bullpen components like David Phelps and Vidal Nuno have been forced into starting roles, weakening the relief corps.
With untested and unknown Chase Whitley scheduled to start the Subway Series finale on Thursday, the Yankees needed more than just scoreless innings from Tanaka. They needed at least eight, if not nine, innings.
If you missed the batter-by-batter exchanges between Tanaka and the suddenly hot Mets lineup, the statistics are instructive and telling. Yet they are also misleading. New York's Cy Young-caliber righty eschewed the instinct to strike out more hitters, pitched to contact during the middle innings and entered the end of the game with enough stamina to finish what he started.
For the season, Tanaka's numbers—8 GS, 6-0, 58.0 IP, 66 K, 7 BB, 2.17 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 2.18 xFIP—are mesmerizing, but it's the calming effect his outings have on the team that's most impressive. With a combination of talent and demeanor, he never seems to emote on the mound or give off a sense of urgency.
When asked about the responsibility now faced with 60 percent of the Opening Day rotation on the shelf and injuries hampering lineup pieces like Carlos Beltran and Ichiro Suzuki, pitching coach Larry Rothschild referenced Tanaka's career in Japan, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
“He is used to being that guy from [his responsibility in] Japan,” Rothschild said. “Still, you can only pitch as good as you can pitch.”
Right now, Tanaka's best is more than enough. While it's a fool's errand to expect his lengthy personal undefeated streak—now up to 34 straight decisions dating back to his Japanese career—to continue throughout the season, his starts need to result in victories for New York.
It's too early to handicap the AL MVP race or even consider putting a pitcher in the discussion, but Tanaka's first eight starts in the majors look eerily similar to an eight-start run Justin Verlander had in the summer of 2011 that ultimately capitulated him into the MVP conversation.
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Until pitchers like Phelps, Nuno and Whitley are replaced by better and more consistent options, the Yankees are destined to endure losses and valleys of performance. Due to the parity across the American League and AL East, the team can endure losing if Tanaka acts as a stopper and ends losing streaks.
Furthermore, the team can navigate the rough waters of concern and fret in New York by following feelings that Tanaka exudes when on the mound. From confidence to stoicism to focus to a single-minded approach, the rookie carries himself like a veteran.
During a difficult month, the Yankees need to lean on their best pitcher and take a page out of his playbook in order to survive in the absence of so many valued contributors.