Despite homer, Masahiro Tanaka impresses Phillies

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Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees throws during a

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees throws during a spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field on March 6, 2014 in Clearwater, Fla. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mike Carlson

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Everything Marlon Byrd knew about Masahiro Tanaka came from watching video of his days pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He studied the late break on Tanaka's pitches, the rotation of the ball. Slow motion. Freeze frame. Repeat.

"You do as much as possible," Byrd said. "But it's not the same as the game."

What Byrd didn't glean from that footage, he assumed. The Yankees paid a total of $175 million for Tanaka, a staggering price that included a $20-million fee to pry him from Rakuten. Once Byrd factored in those numbers, he had a better understanding of the battle he was in for Thursday at Bright House Field.

"The Yankees always do it right," Byrd said. "They give a guy money, it's a guy that can play. There was no doubt about that."

Not always. That's a slight exaggeration. But in so many words, Byrd basically was saying you get what you pay for. And the more we see of Tanaka, the more we believe that he is in fact the real deal.

On Thursday, Tanaka's first start -- and second appearance -- was delayed 90 minutes by a Sharknado-level storm that would have wiped out 99.9 percent of Grapefruit League games. But after the funnel cloud swept through and spun into the bay, Tanaka took the mound and tamed the Phillies with little difficulty -- aside from a rogue homer hit by Freddy Galvis.

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Galvis squeezed two of the longer at-bats from Tanaka, and in doing so, got to take inventory of his expanded repertoire. Last Saturday, Tanaka told us he threw seven different pitches in his debut, a two-inning relief stint. On Thursday, Galvis added another twist: two species of sliders.

From what he could tell, he hacked at a "Frisbee slider" when he grounded out leading off in the first inning. Galvis also mentioned a harder pitch with a slider break -- and no, it was not his feared splitter. Galvis first saw that when he swung at and missed the second pitch of the game.

Falling behind against Tanaka can feel like a death sentence. It's nearly impossible to protect the plate against an attack that features so many angles and speeds. The Phillies' only saving grace was that Tanaka's splitter appeared to be a touch erratic.

After Tanaka used it to whiff Chase Utley, the Phillies laid off the pitch, with Byrd saying Tanaka occasionally threw it "short," meaning that it could be identified too early.

In the second inning, Byrd said he was "surprised" by Tanaka's first two fastballs, which he took for strikes. But Byrd held back on a splitter in the dirt and then drilled a slider -- Tanaka left it up -- into the right-centerfield gap for a double.

"His fastball is explosive," Byrd said. "The balls that are low, they look like they're going to be balls and they stay as strikes. The split, he was throwing a little bit short today. I'm sure his next start he'll fix that. But his slider was very tight. He just left one on the plate for me."

That miss was nowhere near as costly as the pitch to Galvis, who took advantage of one of the few times Tanaka failed to jump ahead in the count. Sitting 3-and-1, Galvis guessed fastball, and Tanaka could not have teed it up any better. The result was a long home run that cleared the grassy berm beyond the rightfield wall.

This was only an exhibition game, but Galvis' homer made him an instant celebrity on the other side of the planet. Surrounded by reporters afterward, Galvis said the last time he received so much attention was his walk-off shot against Reds closer Aroldis Chapman last May.

But Tanaka didn't seem too worried. These statistics mean nothing. The experience is what counts, and it will be stored in his memory bank for April. Tanaka has shown us so far that's the only piece missing.

"He's got all the pitches," Ryan Howard said. "That split-finger is going to be one to be reckoned with. As long as he can stay ahead of the curve and continue to make adjustments, he'll be OK."

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