Tanaka impressive, even on off night


NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka came to the New York Yankees with a huge amount of folklore about his career in Japan trailing him like a comet tail. But on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, his Coming To America story expanded in an important way.

Because what the Yankees' early-season sensation revealed about himself in only his fifth big league outing was the real reason why he's lost only once in the past 616 calendar days -- an outing even more revealing than the strikeout-filled gem he gave the Yanks in his season debut, or the "no-hit stuff" his teammates said he had in his second start against the Chicago Cubs.

On Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels, we saw for the first time what Tanaka is capable of when he isn't at his best. When he has to battle and grind. And he passed yet another important test.

Again and again, the 25-year-old right-hander had to shake off his control problems and reset. But the way he was able to battle -- not only the Angels, but himself -- and keep the Yankees in position to win was every bit a rite of passage as grabbing his first win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Tuesday -- and then having enough swagger to admit he doesn't rule out putting together another undefeated season here, same as he did while going 24-0 during the regular season last year in Japan.

"I think you learn a lot about a pitcher when they're struggling and they find a way to get through it," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after Tanaka lasted 6 1/3 innings, surrendering only five hits but getting a no-decision in the Yankees' 3-2 win.

Compared to his first four starts, Tanaka's command was only average Sunday -- funny as that sounds, considering he struck out 11 batters. But early in the game especially, back when many of the Angels' hitters were on the top step of the dugout to get their first live view of Tanaka after hearing so much advance praise, Tanaka seemed to be fighting himself. His pitches were high and wide. Too down and in. He even sent a few fastballs screaming right down the pipe.

And yet the tenacity Tanaka showed -- that bulldog mentality we heard he displayed in Japan, with feats such as throwing 160 pitches in a playoff game and then volunteering to pitch the next day in relief -- was in full view.

That was the most impressive thing about him Sunday.

"I just said to myself, 'This is one of those days when I'm basically giving hits, getting runners on base,' so I try to keep myself intact, not get out of control," Tanaka said through his interpreter.

Did he think perhaps the league was starting to adjust to him? Did he make anything of the fact that the Angels got four of their five hits by swinging at his first or second pitch rather than working themselves deep into counts and then risking facing that nasty splitter, the out pitch that accounts for so many of Tanaka's strikeouts?

"It doesn't really matter," Tanaka said. "I'm sure they're studying me. But I can't really worry about that.

"All I have to do is be better than them."

That's "all." Just be better than them. Better than Angels stars Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, two of the best hitters in the game. Better than the likes of David Ortiz earlier in the week in Boston.

"If the league wants to make an adjustment," Girardi said, "I know he's capable of making an adjustment himself. ... He's tough-minded. That's his makeup. That's his DNA."

Already, Tanaka talks like an ace. He believes in himself like an ace. And he will be the widely acknowledged ace of the Yanks' staff soon enough.

He should be already. Nobody else on the current staff is a close second.

And nobody is giving the ritual lip service about how it's too early to say his 3-0 start and 2.27 ERA is too small a sample size to make any firm conclusions.

Hitters are now 0-28 with 18 strikeouts against Tanaka in at-bats ending with his splitter in his past three starts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He passes the eyeball test, too. There is already enough evidence to say batters won't often be able to hit his splitter even when they can guess it's coming.

Unlike his first four starts, in which he struck out 35 in 29 1/3 innings and seemed able to locate his pitches at will, nothing came easy for Tanaka against the Angels. He'd already thrown 72 pitches by just the fourth inning, and by then he had already coughed up four walks -- or twice as many as he had all season up to this point. He also had a hit batsman.

In the fifth, he'd seen Ichiro Suzuki misplay a deep ball to left field to turn what should've been an inning-ending out into a triple for Howie Kendrick. But rather than get frustrated or rattled, Tanaka stranded Kendrick by striking out Erick Aybar.

When Tanaka left the game in the seventh, the Yankees were trailing by a run thanks to a sixth-inning homer he gave up to David Freese. But Mark Teixeira got Tanaka off the hook with a homer in the seventh that tied the game at 2. ("I was very happy," Tanaka allowed.) Then the Angels gave the Yanks a gift run in the eighth to allow them to steal off with the win on a night New York managed only three hits itself.

And here's what everyone learned: Tanaka can keep the Yankees in position to win when he has his great stuff. And when he doesn't.

"The most important thing," Tanaka said, "is the desire."