CLEVELAND - The player just about everyone agrees the Yankees can least afford to lose has been lost. But for how long?
The club placed rookie standout Masahiro Tanaka on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday with right elbow inflammation after sending him to New York earlier in the day for an MRI.
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Results weren't immediately available, as the Yankees were waiting for the MRI to be read by team physician Christopher Ahmad, in Seattle for a conference. The Yankees planned to send Tanaka to Seattle, where the top orthopedic surgeons in the country were meeting. One club insider described the team as "extremely worried.''
Joe Girardi didn't have much to say regarding the injury, and Brian Cashman was holding off discussing it with the media until Ahmad weighed in. Girardi said Tanaka complained of elbow soreness after Tuesday night's game, which Girardi said was the first time he heard of any discomfort.
But a source said Tanaka, who has lost three of his last four starts, had been experiencing some discomfort his "last few'' outings.
Catcher Brian McCann said he didn't notice anything that raised a red flag Tuesday, when Tanaka allowed a season-high five runs and 10 hits in 62/3 innings of a 5-3 loss to the Indians.
"The only thing from yesterday was his pitches didn't have the same sharp action that they had in the past,'' McCann said. " . . . I didn't notice anything, so [the MRI] was a surprise.''
Brett Gardner, however, didn't sound as surprised. "I think anybody could tell by watching him last night . . . that he obviously wasn't himself,'' said Gardner, scratched from Wednesday night's lineup with a mild abdominal injury.
Three scouts from opposing teams in attendance Tuesday said separately they didn't see anything suggesting Tanaka had a problem. "Got a lot more pitches up than I've seen,'' one said, "but I wasn't thinking injury.''
The Yankees' immediate concern revolves around losing by far their best pitcher. Tanaka (12-4, 2.51 ERA) leads them in wins, innings (1291/3) and strikeouts (135) while carrying a troubled rotation.
"It would be a big loss, any time you lose a starting pitcher. They're hard to replace,'' said Girardi, who would know, having lost four-fifths of the rotation he left camp with. "And what he's done for us, it's hard to replace.''
Impossible might be a better word. "It goes without saying how important he's been,'' Derek Jeter said. "He's been our go-to guy.''
Said Gardner: "You just hope and pray that we get good news and it's something minor. You worry about anybody, but he's pretty special.''
There is reason for concern beyond this season, too.
Tanaka, though only 25, came to the Yankees with plenty of mileage on his arm, averaging 188 innings the previous seven seasons with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He also threw 53 complete games. He threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the Japan Series last November, then came back the next night and got three outs to save Game 7.
"He threw so many innings so young and had that abuse at the end to win the Series,'' an opposing team's executive said. "Now he is thrust into big innings with less [time] between [starts].
" . . . We'll see. He's been tremendous. He's passed every 'Japan to U.S.' test with flying colors. The only one left is the biggest of all, though. Durability.''