ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Don't misunderstand.
For Masahiro Tanaka, pitching off a mound Saturday for the first time during his rehab isn't unimportant.
But all involved said there's a long way between a less-than-all-out bullpen session and actually returning to the Yankees' rotation this season.
"I've been somewhat guarded in a sense because you have to get in competition,'' Joe Girardi said of rehab games, which are not on the immediate horizon. "But obviously, it's another step. It's significantly more than just playing catch.''
Tanaka, who is trying to recover from a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow without having to undergo Tommy John surgery, emerged from the Yankees' dugout at 12:06 p.m. Saturday.
After playing long toss in the outfield and throwing seven warmup pitches, he threw 25 pitches to bullpen catcher Roman Rodriguez, with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and trainer Steve Donohue keeping a close eye.
Perhaps indicative of the earliness of the process, Girardi did not watch the session.
"I felt really good out there,'' Tanaka said through his translator afterward. "I think we're headed in the right direction, so I feel good about it.''
Said Rothschild, "It's more important how he feels [Sunday]. It's great he got through today and feels good, but it's just a daily thing . . . He's had no twinges or anything. You stay optimistic until you know otherwise.''
Rothschild said he wasn't concentrating on the pitches, which were almost all fastballs, as much as he was on Tanaka's demeanor.
"More facial expressions to see if he's trying to hide something, which I don't think he's going to, but you just never know,'' Rothschild said of what he was looking for.
"You watch his delivery to make sure he's not forcing anything. The most important part early in this is that he stays smooth and finishes his pitches and everything so we don't tweak anything. But he's had some time off, so it's not only going to be the elbow, you have to watch everything.''
Tanaka, 25, who has been on the disabled list since July 9, has been playing catch with regularity since Aug. 4 and has felt encouraged with each step he's taken.
The next step likely will be another bullpen session, one in which he lets loose to a greater degree than he did Saturday.
As is the case early in spring training, Tanaka didn't unleash his fastball at full intensity, and when it came to breaking balls, he "spun a few balls real easy,'' according to Rothschild.
Said Tanaka, "I felt today's session was better than the first bullpen session of spring training.''
But he agreed with Girardi and Rothschild that bullpen sessions can tell you only so much. "I think you really don't know until you pitch in a real game,'' he said.
As for the best-case scenario regarding when Tanaka might see game action, the Yankees aren't giving out dates. At least not publicly.
"That I can't put a timeframe on,'' Rothschild said. "We have to pass the hurdles we have in front of us first. I have a fairly good idea, but we have to go a step at a time.''
And while the Yankees, struggling to stay in the race for the second American League wild card, could use Tanaka right now, their standing won't impact the speed of his rehab schedule.
"No, I think it's important that we know that he's healthy,'' Girardi said. "And the only way you'll find out is to get him in games.''