Masahiro Tanaka's Brilliant Comeback Perfect 1st Step in Ongoing Health Battle

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2015

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Every Masahiro Tanaka start is a story unto itself. On Wednesday against the Seattle Mariners, it had a happy ending.

But the bigger yarn, the one about Tanaka's long-term health and future with the New York Yankees, is still being written.

First, let's unspool the good news: Tanaka looked positively electric, twirling seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball with nine strikeouts and no walks in a 3-1 victory over the M's. 

The Yankees ace entered the game on an 80-pitch leash and pitched as well as could be imagined under the circumstances, as WFAN 660's Joe Giglio pointed out:

Joe Giglio @JoeGiglioSports

Masahiro Tanaka just did more with an 80-pitch limit than any pitcher I can remember.

It was Tanaka's first start since April 23 and just his fifth of 2015. After spending the offseason resting the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow that cost him more than two months in 2014, Tanaka landed on the disabled list again on April 28 with a strain of his right elbow and tendinitis in his right wrist. 

So, naturally, Yankees fans from the Bronx to Okinawa were holding their breath when the Japanese right-hander took the hill in Seattle. 

Now, they can exhale. 

The results were there, sure, but even more importantly, so was the stuff. Tanaka's fastball repeatedly touched 95-96 mph, and the devastating splitter was on display, too.

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In fact, no less an authority than New York skipper Joe Girardi thought it was as lively as his No. 1 arm has looked all season, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch:

Bryan Hoch @BryanHoch

Girardi said today was the best velocity they've seen from Tanaka all year. "It's good to have him back."

At 29-25, the Yankees are hanging on to a slim lead in the flawed-yet-balanced American League East. A healthy, full-strength Tanaka should significantly boost their chances of pulling away from the pack and playing into October. When he's right, he's quite simply one of the most unhittable pitchers in the game.

Tanaka's brilliance has been overshadowed by injuries since he arrived in the big leagues.
Tanaka's brilliance has been overshadowed by injuries since he arrived in the big leagues.Brian Blanco/Getty Images

There's the rub, though. Dazzling as he's been since arriving in the big leagues last season after a storied career with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Nippon Professional Baseball, Tanaka's injuries have loomed over him like a swollen storm cloud.

"Health is too hard to predict," Girardi said prior to Tanaka's most recent outing, per Billy Witz of the New York Times. "[With] all your starters, I think you're more apt to keep your fingers crossed that they stay healthy than expect it."

New York already lost second-year starter Chase Whitley to Tommy John surgery and another rotation cog, Ivan Nova, is working his way back from the procedure.

As long as Tanaka carries that partial tear in his pitching elbow, he'll trail his own Tommy John fears. When the injury was diagnosed, doctors recommended rest and rehab rather than surgery. 

Still, it's impossible to watch him throw and not think, in the back of your mind, that the other shoe is going to drop eventually.

It doesn't have to, though. Tanaka could pitch pain-free for the rest of the season and enjoy his first taste of playoff baseball in the Big Apple. After his brilliant performance Wednesday, a little optimism is surely warranted.

Tanaka is still just 26 years old and is signed through the 2020 season. At the same time, this New York team is loaded with aging veterans—guys like first baseman Mark Teixeira and designated hitter Alex Rodriguez, who might be in the midst of their final productive campaign.

Add an eminently winnable division, and the Yankees look like a clear win-now club. 

For Tanaka, and for the team that depends on him, the best approach is one day at a time.

"[There are] always going to be ups and downs from year to year," Tanaka said. "The important thing is to find what’s working for you in that year and make the most out of it."

All statistics current as of June 3 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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