Masahiro Tanaka throws simulated game but says 'the rust is still there'

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who is on Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who is on the disabled list, throws before a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium in New York, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Kathy Willens

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DETROIT -- Masahiro Tanaka seems to be closing in on a return that, in early July, few outside of the Yankees thought would be possible.

"I am optimistic," Joe Girardi said after the righthander threw a 49-pitch, three-inning simulated game Thursday morning at Comerica Park.

Although Girardi indicated that Tanaka could be ready for the big leagues after two rehab outings, the first of which would take place in five or six days, Tanaka spoke cautiously, telling the American and Japanese media he's not feeling quite as sharp as he'd like.

Tanaka, on the disabled list since July 9 with a slight tear of his right ulnar collateral ligament, took the cautious approach, saying he felt "the rust is still there" with his pitches.

"I still have some work to do to get back to game-ready," he said, later adding that he is more "cautious" than "excited" about making it back to the rotation this season.

Tanaka was encouraged in that he has not had any elbow setbacks and because the only soreness has been the normal kind that a pitcher feels immediately after throwing a bullpen session or in a game. The Yankees, who had Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and assistant general manager Billy Eppler among those watching Tanaka, continue to hope he can avoid Tommy John surgery.

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With the Yankees' minor-league teams' seasons concluding Monday, any rehab games likely would be a stepped-up version of what Tanaka did Thursday. But those are details that will be worked out in the days to come. From Girardi's perspective, the important part is that Tanaka did not have any pain in the elbow Thursday.

"I didn't see him favoring anything, and I think that's a good sign," he said. "He threw all his pitches, he didn't stay away from any pitches, which is positive. He threw his slider, his split, his curveball, both fastballs. We'll continue to develop the arm strength and hopefully it works."

Righthanded-hitting Brendan Ryan, who faced Tanaka for all 49 pitches -- even standing in lefthanded for a handful -- said, "He's not going to be where he was right before he got hurt, obviously. He's been off for quite a while. But it's good to see him out there. Feels like the velocity's there."

Ryan, who called Tanaka's famed splitter "nasty," said he looked "pretty close" to being major league-ready.

"He could go out there now and get outs just on stuff alone," Ryan said. "The sooner the better. I would say it was a pretty good day."

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