Rocked at start, Masahiro Tanaka finds a rhythm to pick up first career win
Peter Power, AP
TORONTO — Three pitches into Masahiro Tanaka’s major league career, one thing was clear. As good as he may be, and as much faith as the New York Yankees had in him to commit $175 million for his services, Tanaka is not unhittable.
Melky Cabrera, the first major league hitter Tanaka faced in a regular-season game, made that point early on Friday night by thrashing a high, 1-1 changeup over the wall in right-center. It was a most inauspicious introduction to the big leagues for Tanaka, but as the game wore on, he proved a few other things, too.
He can overcome adversity. He can settle into a smooth rhythm. He can pitch.
On a night that had been highly anticipated on two continents ever since the Yankees signed Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract on Jan. 22, Tanaka overcame his initial difficulties, including the Cabrera home run and a wacky two-run rally by Toronto in the second inning, to throw seven strong innings in a 7-3 win as the Yankees evened their record at 2-2.
For all the fuss and attention on him, the 25-year-old Tanaka showed he could handle all of it with the demeanor of a cool veteran. He did not allow a run after the second. He did not walk a batter and finished with eight strikeouts, throwing 97 pitches, 65 for strikes.
The game was also the stage for a worrisome hamstring injury to Mark Teixeira; the Yankees’ first successful replay challenge, which resulted in two runs; their first unsuccessful replay challenge; and impressive performances by Jacoby Ellsbury and the rookie Yangervis Solarte.
But at the start of the night, Tanaka was the draw. After Cabrera’s home run, Tanaka got Colby Rasmus to tap a ball back to him and then struck out Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The Blue Jays scored twice in the second to take a 3-2 lead — the Yankees had scored twice in the first — thanks in part to a throwing error by Teixeira.
When Cabrera came to the plate in the second, Tanaka struck him out. But it was an eventful at-bat. Cabrera hit a bouncing foul ball down the first-base line, and as Teixeira drifted to snare it, he took an awkward step and skipped a step.
He called for a timeout and summoned the trainer. After a brief conversation, Teixeira was removed from the game, and as he walked down the dugout steps toward the clubhouse, he threw his glove in frustration.
The initial diagnosis was a strained hamstring, but Teixeira will probably have more tests in the coming days and could land on the 15-day disabled list.
The injury put a damper on what was an otherwise celebratory event, not only because it was Tanaka’s first start but also because the Blue Jays were commemorating their first home game of the season.
Hours before the first pitch, there was a phalanx of cameras, most of them from Japanese television stations, set up outside the Yankees’ clubhouse waiting to record Tanaka’s entrance to the stadium.
There were several celebrities on hand for the occasion, including the former major league player So Taguchi, who was part of a live broadcast back to Japan. Also in attendance was Tanaka’s pop star wife, Mai Satoda, and the comedian Takaaki Ishibashi, a former high school baseball player who was the actor who played Taka Tanaka in the film “Major League II.”
Before the game, Toronto’s R.A. Dickey was presented with a Gold Glove for being the best fielding pitcher in the American League last year. Then both teams were introduced, with the Yankees getting a healthy dose of boos. After the American and Canadian national anthems, Roy Halladay, the former Blue Jays ace who recently retired, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Halladay was one of the best pitchers in the majors, and Tanaka was aiming to be worthy of that standard. As the game progressed, it was clear he had found confidence, making the Blue Jays look less confident with each split-finger fastball or slider he threw.
The Yankees, trailing by 3-2 heading into the third inning, got the lead back for Tanaka after Brian Roberts, Teixeira’s replacement in the batting order, walked with one out. Kelly Johnson struck out, and then Ichiro Suzuki hit a bouncer up the middle to the second baseman.
Suzuki was initially called out on a very close play, but after a brief discussion, manager Joe Girardi challenged the call and it was overturned. Instead of an inning-ending groundout, Suzuki was safe and Roberts was on third. Solarte, the star of Thursday’s game in Houston, then doubled both runners home, and the Yankees led, 4-3. They added a run each in the fourth — when Ellsbury doubled and scored on Brian McCann’s flare to left — and the eighth and the ninth.
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