Nearly two-and-a-half-months since he last took the ball in a major league game, the right-hander displayed virtually all the bells and whistles he brought from Japan and let loose in his first 18 starts as a Yankee. The live fastball, the disappearing slider, and most important, his signature bottomless splitter were all there as Tanaka easily handled the Toronto Blue Jays for 5.1 innings in a New York victory Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
This should elicit a massive sigh of relief from the Yankees, an organization holding its breath during this start even if it wouldn’t admit so publicly. Watching Tanaka allow one earned run and strike out four through 70 pitches after rehabbing from a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament has to give the Yankees hope—not for this forgettable season but 2015 when high expectations will return regardless of any other problems the team faces.
The fans at Yankee Stadium were clearly pleased:
Masahiro Tanaka exits after 70 pitches and receives a standing ovation. He allows 5 hits in 5 1/3 IP, no walks and 4 strikeouts.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) September 21, 2014
That partial tear, discovered after Tanaka’s July 8 start, seemed so Yankees. The club spent $175 million to acquire the 25-year-old before the season, which includes a $20 million posting fee. Through his first 16 starts, Tanaka came as advertised, putting up a 2.10 ERA and striking out 127 batters in 115.2 innings while walking only 18. He looked every bit the American League’s Rookie of the Year and a Cy Young Award candidate.
However, his next two starts were curious because Tanaka did not look like himself, allowing nine runs in his next 13.2 innings, striking out only eight hitters. After that July 8 outing, Tanaka complained of discomfort. An MRI later revealed the ligament was partially torn, and nightmares of Tommy John surgery haunted the Bronx.
The organization got good news the next day when Tanaka flew to Seattle to meet with doctors, who believed the ace could rehab the injury and take a platelet-rich-plasma injection rather than undergo a surgery that would likely snatch him from the rotation for at least a year.
Tanaka rehabbed and things were going according to plan, but a few weeks ago, he complained of soreness in his arm and was evaluated by a team doctor. Again, the organization held its breath until learning it was nothing more than fatigue.
From that point, the Yankees worked to get Tanaka back into their rotation before the end of a season that won't include a postseason berth for the second year in a row. There had been concerns about rushing the young pitcher back, but the decision was simple, and understandable, for the Yankees: They wanted to know as soon as possible if their No. 1 arm could handle the rigors of pitching with the rehabbed elbow or if he would indeed need surgery.
The team did not want to hold him back and then realize next February or March that its stud import needs surgery after all.
“We feel that if his arm is going to be OK, it's going to be OK,” manager Joe Girardi told NJ.com. “And if it's not, we want (Tanaka to have surgery) so that you don't miss parts of two seasons. It would be three (seasons) possibly.”
The Yankees aren’t completely in the clear with Tanaka’s elbow just yet. There will be more evaluations in the coming days, but watching his splitter/sinker crumble out of the zone, top out 91 mph and miss bats—three of his four strikeouts came on that pitch—will give everyone confidence that the rehab worked.
That is vital for the Yankees going into next season, because as it stands right now, Tanaka is the one guy on the staff capable of winning those 1-0 or 2-1 games. The last time CC Sabathia threw a complete game was July 9 of last year, and his ERA over his last 40 starts is 4.87. Beyond those two, trusting the rotation to the likes of Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova or Vidal Nuno does not inspire confidence for 2016.
Those close games Tanaka is capable of winning—seven times this season he has thrown at least seven innings and allowed no more than two earned runs—might come in bunches next season as the aging, declining and injury-prone lineup that the Yankees fielded this season does not project to get any better by next April.
Also, hefty financial commitments to the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Sabathia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran going into next season make the Yankees an unsafe bet to land any kind of impact starter in free agency. Their slim farm system means they won’t be able to trade for one either.
At one time, financial resources allowed the Yankees to mask mistakes and injuries. These aren’t those Yankees anymore.
All of that makes Tanaka’s health so much more important. That is why Sunday’s start not only provides hope for his future but also for the future of the franchise.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.