Masahiro Tanaka is aces with the Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees walks to the

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees walks to the dugout after an inning against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, May 31, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Anthony Rieber

Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998

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Remember back in February when Brian Cashman tried to play down expectations for Masahiro Tanaka by saying the Yankees viewed him as a "really solid, consistent No. 3 starter?''

Well, if Tanaka is a No. 3, then the Yankees must have Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander hiding behind the interlocking NY. Because Tanaka is their ace, even if he still won't admit it.

"No, I don't feel like I'm the ace,'' he said Saturday after another dominant performance.

As the kids say, "whatever.'' (Accompanied by a dismissive hand wave.)

Tanaka displayed his ace qualities in a 3-1 win over the Twins. He allowed an unearned run in eight innings and picked up the victory when the Yankees broke a 1-1 tie with two runs in the bottom of the eighth.

Tanaka allowed four hits, walked two and struck out nine. His season numbers -- 8-1, 2.06 ERA, 782/3 innings, 63 hits, 12 walks, 88 strikeouts -- put him in the running for the AL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards.

Might as well throw in MVP, too. At least of the Yankees.

The Yankees are scuffling offensively and lost Mark Teixeira during the game because of soreness in his surgically repaired right wrist. He had a cortisone shot and is out for at least a couple of days.

Behind Tanaka is an injury-ravaged rotation with rapidly aging Hiroki Kuroda along with David Phelps and rookies Vidal Nuño and Chase Whitley.

Still, one-third of the way through the season, the Yankees are the AL's second wild card. (As an illustration of how early it is, the Houston Astros entered the day only 5½ games out of a playoff spot themselves.)

What is an ace? It's the guy you expect to pitch well every time out. It's the guy who stops losing streaks. It's the guy who gives your bullpen a rest in the age of five-inning starters.

For $175 million in salary and posting fee, the Yankees might have gotten the biggest bargain in baseball. If Tanaka became a free agent tomorrow, $155 million in salary over seven years wouldn't be enough.

The only stars approaching Tanaka's orbit at the Stadium on Saturday were a trio of Stanley Cup Final-bound hockey players in the stands: the Rangers' Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Ryan McDonagh.

The Yankees twice made Tanaka's life harder with errors -- by third baseman Kelly Johnson on the game's first pitch and rightfielder Alfonso Soriano to begin the third.

Tanaka also threw two wild pitches -- one in each inning -- but did his best to overcome the mistakes.

In the first, he struck out Joe Mauer on a world-class splitter with a runner on third for the second out, but Josh Willingham poked a soft single to right to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead.

In the third, Tanaka was tougher. With runners on second and third and nobody out, he struck out Mauer, overpowered Willingham for a looper to second and got Oswaldo Arcia looking at a 95-mph fastball -- one of his fastest pitches of the afternoon.

Sounds like what an ace does.

"All I'm trying to do is go up there on the mound each start and try and get my best stuff there,'' Tanaka said. "Just try to beat the opponent. That's basically what I'm doing. It's only been two months since the season started, since I've played baseball here. I mean, it's way too soon.''

It's not way too soon for the Yankees. Imagine if they had whiffed on Tanaka or decided not to blow past the $189-million luxury-tax threshold to sign him. They'd be under .500 for sure.

CC Sabathia is going to step onto a treadmill soon as he recovers from a bad knee. Michael Pineda had a setback in his rehab from a muscle strain below his right shoulder. Neither is a sure thing. And Ivan Nova already is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

After this week's amateur draft, you can bet Cashman will start burning up the phone lines to find another starter, whether it's Jeff Samardzija, currently injured Cliff Lee or some lesser light who doesn't profile as an ace.

That's OK. The Yankees already have one.

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