It's fitting that a pitcher who hadn't lost a regular-season game in almost two years was finally beaten by a team that hasn't done much winning over the past 108.
But that's exactly what happened when New York Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka, who went 24-0 in Japan last season and won his first six decisions in the United States, suffered his first defeat in the majors against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night.
And so there's an "L" next to Tanaka's name in the box score for the first time in (count 'em) 42 consecutive regular-season starts between Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball.
All thanks to a team that entered Tuesday with the very worst record in the bigs and proved the right-hander is in fact human.
By surrendering eight hits and four runs (three earned) over six innings—all of which were career worsts to date—Tanaka was charged with the loss in a rainy game on the North Side that finished 6-1 and knocked the Yankees out of first place to boot.
"I think all my pitches, they went to locations which were easy for the batters to hit," Tanaka said afterward, according to Carrie Muskat of MLB.com.
Prior to Tuesday, the only other loss Tanaka had experienced in 21 months was in Game 6 of the Japan Series last November. After that one, the resilient 25-year-old bounced back to get the save the very next night—after throwing 160 pitches!—to clinch the first-ever championship for his Japanese club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles.
As for Tanaka's last loss in a non-playoff game? Get out your calendars, because that came all the way back on Aug. 19, 2012, as David Waldstein of The New York Times pointed out in April.
Look, this had to happen at some point. Tanaka was not going to go lossless across 30-plus starts in the majors. The fact that he broke into the bigs with eight straight non-defeats was rather remarkable, especially given all the hype and expectation he faced coming off his perfect season in Japan and the $155 million contract he signed with the Yankees over the winter.
As for why the Cubs of all teams were the ones to take down Tanaka, that could be due to a few reasons. First, as mentioned above, it rained for much of the game, which appeared to give Tanaka trouble finding his command and getting into a rhythm. At one point in the middle innings, this happened:
There's also the possibility that Tanaka was a little off because he threw 114 pitches last time out—another MLB career high—in blanking the New York Mets for his first complete-game shutout as a Yankee.
The other factor at play may be related to this being the first time Tanaka has seen any team more than once. He faced the Cubs on April 16 in what was the third start of his MLB career and arguably his best. In that one, Tanaka went eight shutout innings and gave up a season-low three baserunners while whiffing 10.
Manager Joe Girardi, however, refuted the idea that the second-time-around angle was the reason Tanaka struggled at times Tuesday:
That may be the case, but let's at least keep this in mind going forward: The three hitters who did the most damage against Tanaka on Tuesday were Luis Valbuena (3-for-3 with two doubles), Mike Olt (1-for-2 with an RBI single and a sac fly) and John Baker (2-for-2 with a double and another sac fly), all of whom also started in that April 16 outing.
"We watched a lot of video and saw him striking out a lot of the best hitters in baseball and making people look foolish," Baker said, per Muskat. "And a lot of us here already had that experience, swinging and laughing and looking in the dugout, like 'What the heck was that pitch?'"
"To see him at least twice does help," Olt said about facing Tanaka. "He definitely had some great stuff today, too. We were able to get some stuff up in the zone and do something with it."
Baseball is a game of adjustments as much as anything else. So far, Tanaka has shown he can succeed in the majors and also make adjustments—remember, he gave up a home run to Melky Cabrera of the Toronto Blue Jays, the first batter of his big league career.
Hitters now have to adjust to Tanaka's deep repertoire, including his often unhittable splitter. Perhaps that's what the Cubs were able to do to a certain extent, despite entering the game ranked in the bottom five in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.
Then again, as much as Tanaka had to battle the elements and though he may have been dealing with the aftereffects of a complete game his last time out—all while pitching against the same team for the first time—he was still pretty good.
Even with the above, Tanaka managed to throw 63 of his 88 pitches for strikes on his way to striking out seven against just one walk in six homerless innings. Heck, because one of the four runs was unearned, this was still a quality start, meaning Tanaka has gone a perfect 9-of-9 in that regard.
Alas, in the wake of his first-ever big league defeat following 42 straight starts without a loss, Tanaka is no longer perfect.
Of course, this does not mean Tanaka's 2014 dominance will end, or that the Cubs have provided clubs with a foolproof blueprint to beating him.
Facing his first MLB team for the second time is a learning curve, but this was as much about a simple off day as opposed to anything concerning long term. Tanaka is still as good as advertised.
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