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Yankees' October Run in Jeopardy If Masahiro Tanaka Isn't 100 Percent

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2015

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts after getting Toronto Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar to fly out for the third out in the seventh inning of a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in New York. The Yankees won 5-0. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)
Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

The pick-an-ace game of chance will not work in October.

The New York Yankees need a definitive answer. But for nearly six months, that all-important No. 1 spot in the rotation has been a revolving door of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately candidates, none of which have been able to keep the position in their grasps for what seems like more than a couple of weeks at a time because of ineffectiveness, injuries or both. 

Even through patches of injuries and inconsistency, Masahiro Tanaka has been considered the team’s best option to start any big October game, whether it be one in the final days of the regular season, a wild-card play-in or Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Of the starters who have been with the team all season, the Japanese right-hander leads the Yankees with a 3.38 ERA, 0.987 WHIP and 118 ERA+, showing he has been mostly good this season when healthy.

His health, however, is his biggest obstacle. His latest problem is a right hamstring strain suffered on Sept. 18. He was feeling discomfort in it as late as Friday, and the Yankees now do not know when, or if, he will take the ball before the end of the regular season. It was announced Sunday that if Tanaka cannot take the mound by Thursday, he won’t start again before the playoffs, when he would likely be called upon for a one-game wild-card sudden death likely to happen at Yankee Stadium.

If Tanaka does not pitch again until the postseason, that would be 18 days between starts, the second one coming on Oct. 6 in the franchise’s most important game since 2012. If he is not 100 percent healthy, or effective, his team’s playoff chances are put in real jeopardy.

No doubt #Yankees want to get Tanaka at least a tune-up start before Tues WC game, but have to balance how he feels too. Clock ticking.

— David Lennon (@DPLennon) September 26, 2015

“I know everyone wants an answer, but it's really not that simple because of his value to us moving forward," Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters, via Grace Raynor of MLB.com. "It's something you have to weigh. Is it worth the risk maybe moving it up a day or two days if you need him, to what could possibly happen? It's a careful situation that we're trying to manage. I wish I knew, really." 

Before Tanaka, who could pitch out of the bullpen if he does not make a start by Thursday, hurt his hamstring running to first base in a game against the New York Mets, he was pitching like the ace the Yankees figured him to be when they signed him for $155 million over seven years. In his last eight starts, he had a 2.60 ERA, including two dominant outings against the Toronto Blue Jays in which he combined to allow one run with 15 strikeouts across 16 innings.

That kind of production gives the Yankees an arm that can match up with any the other wild-card contenders might throw at them, including Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, Texas’ Cole Hamels or whoever the Los Angeles Angels or Minnesota Twins might decide to trot out there. The problem, of course, is Tanaka’s availability, or his sharpness in the safe assumption that he is ready to pitch in that game.

"I don't think we're there yet. I'm not ready to talk anything about that yet," Tanaka told reporters through an interpreter, via Raynor. "As for now, for me, I'm just happy with the way I'm progressing."

If the Yankees are not comfortable throwing Tanaka in his first postseason game on 18 days of rest, they have another option, though one that is less proven—21-year-old rookie Luis Severino, who has a 2.77 ERA in 10 major league starts after he pitched six shutout innings Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.

If Tanaka's not ready for the wild card game -- he likely will be -- then Severino would be a good choice, eh? You know, if it goes that way

— Anthony McCarron (@AnthonyMcCarron) September 27, 2015

“I would be happy to, of course,” Severino told reporters Sunday, via Newsday's Neil Best.

The Yankees don’t want to be forced into that alternative, obviously. Not because Severino has not demonstrated his value, because he has. And part of the reason they made sure to limit him in his 19 minor league starts was so they could keep him fresh for September and October in the majors.

But that Wild Card Game is exactly the kind of start the Yankees envisioned Tanaka making when they signed him. For the better part of the last two seasons, he has shown, when healthy, he is the kind of pitcher who should get the ball in a do-or-die scenario.

The problem is getting him prepared for it. Hamstrings are temperamental; they act up without notice. And that is beside the fact that keeping Tanaka sharp after nearly three weeks of nonaction seems fairly improbable even for a front-line starter.

In order for the Yankees to advance, though, the hamstring and the stuff have to be ever-present. If not, the franchise’s return to the postseason might last just a few hours.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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