David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - The Red Sox have used Fenway Park through the years to squeeze the life out of opposing pitchers, and in the fourth inning last night, the vise began tightening on Masahiro Tanaka.
First, David Ortiz launched a long home run that sailed over the Red Sox bullpen and stunningly reached the bleachers in right-centerfield. This was the full-on Big Papi, who stood and watched for a few moments before finally breaking into a trot.
Next was Mike Napoli, and he hooked a laser shot that ricocheted around the Green Monster seats. With two swings, the Red Sox had sliced Tanaka's lead in half, 4-2, and they weren't close to finished. One out later, A.J. Pierzynski ripped a double high off the Monster, and the suddenly energized Fenway crowd was waiting for the meltdown.
But Tanaka refused to buckle. In his Fenway debut, facing the Yankees' bitter rival, this was no time to show weakness. Needing one more out, Tanaka took apart Boston's prized rookie, Xander Bogaerts, with four pitches -- the last a 94-mph fastball that Bogaerts watched for strike three.
Just like that, it was over. Threat squashed, and the Red Sox never again challenged Tanaka as the Yankees cruised to a 9-3 win.
"It can happen in this park in a hurry," Joe Girardi said. "And I give him a lot of credit for what he did."
Girardi didn't hesitate when asked about the most impressive part of Tanaka's night. The ability to collect himself in that fourth inning, to reverse the momentum, was the shining moment of Tanaka's Fenway debut. He knew it, too. "I try to tell myself, I gave up those runs," Tanaka said through his interpreter, "but no more."
Tanaka does a good job taking his own advice. He's 3-0 with the Yankees, and 31-0 since his last regular-season loss in 2012. With seven more strikeouts Tuesday night, and no walks, Tanaka has 35 Ks overall and only two free passes in 291/3 innings. Beyond those numbers is Tanaka's unflappable nature, a confidence that allows him to conquer every obstacle to this point. That's what separates him in the Yankees' eyes.
And in a rotation that now has likely lost Ivan Nova to Tommy John surgery, the Yankees have needed Tanaka to step up -- if only to give them something to feel even better about. He appears more than ready for the responsibility, and his dominance of the Red Sox at Fenway only reinforced what the Yankees already believed about him.
"He has a great presence on the mound," Derek Jeter said. "It doesn't seem like he's phased by too much."
The Red Sox thought they had Tanaka rattled in that fourth inning, but they obviously don't know him very well. When Ortiz styled on that home run, Tanaka saw it -- but didn't display any outward signs of disgust. Compare that with the Pirates'.
Gerrit Cole, who chased down the Brewers Carlos Gomez over the weekend, or any other pitcher that has taken the law into his own hands over such antics.
There's likely no one in the majors, or any other league, that would take on Big Papi. But Tanaka had made Ortiz look foolish in the first inning -- whiffing him on a nasty 1-and-2 splitter -- and he wasn't intimidated afterward in talking about the incident. There was hint of distaste in his comments.
"I didn't think much about it," Tanaka said. "Obviously you don't see that a lot in Japan. Maybe from some American players in Japan."
The Ortiz and Napoli homers also left an imprint on Tanaka, who now has those at-bats stored in his memory bank. Tanaka was stung by those back-to-back shots, and it was a feeling he has no intention of re-living.
"Obviously I missed my spots," Tanaka said. "Maybe I could have gone with different pitches for both hitters. I'm sure that I'll see those two hitters again in the future."
That's a lock. This was only Round 1 of what will be Tanaka's many showdowns with the Red Sox, and he left no doubt who currently has the upper hand. As tense as Tuesday night was, Tanaka managed a smile when asked later if he was having fun so far.
"Enjoying it," he said.
So are the Yankees.