Momentum is such a fickle thing in Major League Baseball.
While the narrative and storyline that comes along with it feed the public’s interest and make for good radio, column and bar-stool fodder, the truth is momentum in that sport shifts from day to day, inning to inning and even batter to batter. All the momentum in the world—negative and positive—can be altered by one misplaced pitch, a swat of a hanging breaking ball or the twirling of a gorgeous complete game.
The Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and all their fans now know that after Masahiro Tanaka delivered his outing of the season in a complete-game, one-run, five-hit, eight-strikeout gem Saturday. With that 4-1 victory at Rogers Center—again in a playoff-like atmosphere—the Yankees have proved the runaway train that was once the Blue Jays will not disappear into the distance with the American League East title.
And if Tanaka can return to the pitcher who resembled a budding ace in 2014, he would suddenly give the Yankees a front man for their rotation and someone who can match up with Toronto ace David Price. Tanaka also provides New York with desperately needed depth in a rotation that seemed to be in flux entering this critical weekend series.
“He was great,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told reporters of Tanaka. “He was on, he was hitting his spots.”
“My mindset was I wanted to go as deep into the game as possible,” Tanaka told reporters through a translator. “I’m just really satisfied that I was able to do that.”
This was the best outing of Tanaka’s season. The 26-year-old Japanese right-hander had shown only flashes this year of what made him the Yankees’ $155 million import and future ace. He lived up to the billing last season by posting a 2.77 ERA and 3.04 FIP in 20 starts before a partial UCL tear shelved him for the final 65 games.
In Tanaka’s previous 16 starts this season, he had a 3.79 ERA and 4.18 FIP. His strikeouts were down, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was down, and his 102 adjusted ERA showed he was an average pitcher. That mediocrity is part of what made the non-waiver trade deadline such a disappointment for Yankees fans, and it is the reason the team had to call up top pitching prospect Luis Severino when Michael Pineda went on the disabled list earlier this month.
While that was happening with the Yankees, the Blue Jays went out and landed Price, bullpen help and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline, which made them look like the most complete team in the American League for a span of 15-plus games. It would have been 16 had Blue Jays reliever Aaron Sanchez not served up a go-ahead home run to Carlos Beltran on Friday, spoiling a great outing by Price.
But that momentum is such a fleeting beast.
The Blue Jays rode that two-week stretch to the top of the AL East, erasing an eight-game deficit in 14 games to go up a half-game in the division. At that point, the narrative suggested the Blue Jays were world-beaters and the Yankees were suckers for not nabbing a front-line starter in July.
Going into this weekend in Toronto, the series winner would have the advantage entering the season’s final seven weeks, although it's still a long schedule when you play almost daily. But if the Yankees did not want to be bombarded with questions about what their problems were and if they could envision themselves catching a team as hot as the Blue Jays, they had to do something.
“Up to this point, I think today was one of the most important games that I've pitched in,” Tanaka told reporters.
And he delivered his best of the year, giving the Yankees hope that this is the Tanaka they can expect through this playoff push and once they get to the postseason.
Masahiro Tanaka: first NYY pitcher to throw CG of 9 innings at Rogers Centre since Andy Pettitte on April 22, 1998 pic.twitter.com/zUWBhJmxG9— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 15, 2015
Pineda, who went on the DL with a strained forearm, is expected back at some point this month so long as no setbacks happen. Severino has been impressive in two starts on a relatively short leash. And Ivan Nova is a wild card the Yankees can hardly afford to play with all the chips in the middle of the table.
This is why it's so significant that Tanaka again looks like the ace of the rotation. When he is right, he undoubtedly gives New York the kind of arm that can go pitch for pitch with the likes of Price, Johnny Cueto and Dallas Keuchel, the other aces of the league.
The Yankees might not have pulled off a blockbuster trade for a starting pitcher, and they might have lost one to the DL for a brief time. But if Tanaka becomes as dominant as he was in 2014, that return to form is as valuable as any ace on the market would have been.
All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.