David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
DETROIT - Judging by the way Masahiro Tanaka's rehab program is dissected on a daily basis, you would think the Yankees' playoff hopes hinge on his return. In reality, though, one has little to do with the other, as Hiroki Kuroda showed us with his superb -- and ultimately wasted -- performance in Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park.
The Yankees' rotation, even without Tanaka, is fine. The new additions are working out well, Michael Pineda is pitching like an ace after returning from a strained shoulder muscle and Kuroda, 39, appears as strong now as at any point in the season. Despite the hoopla surrounding these rehab sessions, fretting over Tanaka's health is something that should be done with 2015 in mind.
Hours before Kuroda took the mound Thursday, Tanaka was the center of attention in his second simulated game. He pitched against Brendan Ryan, who had more at-bats in an hour than in a whole month for the Yankees, and later reported no problems stemming from the small ligament tear in his elbow.
Trying to nail down a return date for Tanaka, however, seems like a pointless exercise. The Yankees have only 30 games left and Joe Girardi believes he will need a minimum of two more simulated games before possibly rejoining the rotation. To further complicate matters, Tanaka told the Japanese media that he feels as if he will require more than two. Does that sound like a pitcher eager to get back?
Ryan was impressed enough to suggest that Tanaka could get major-league hitters out right now. His trademark splitter appears lethal again. "Some of them are so dirty,'' Ryan said, "you forget to swing.''
That's great news, and really, all the Yankees can do is mark Tanaka's progress in small increments. But the only thing we knew for certain after the session was that Tanaka wouldn't be having surgery in the next 48 hours. Beyond that, his timeline is impossible to predict accurately, and the Yankees are reluctant to go there.
"It's a step in the right direction,'' Girardi said.
In the meantime, the second-half reboot of the Yankees' rotation is operating better than anyone could have expected. You know who else had a nasty splitter Thursday? Kuroda, who allowed only four hits and two runs in seven innings but left with the score tied at 2.
Kuroda gave up a pair of singles and Alex Avila's sacrifice fly in the second. In the fifth, he burned himself with a leadoff walk and a wild pitch before allowing a tying two-out single by Rajai Davis. The Yankees just couldn't inflict enough damage on Kyle Lobstein, making his first major-league start.
"I want to make sure the team wins,'' Kuroda said through his interpreter. "Because that didn't happen, it wasn't a good day for me.''
While we admire Kuroda's team-first mentality, he should be proud of the effort, along with the rest of the rotation for how it has kept the Yankees in contention all this time.
When Tanaka's elbow tear was revealed July 8, we were ready to write the Yankees' epitaph. One minute, he was a threat to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. The next, he was just another possible Tommy John casualty.
But the emergence of Shane Greene, Pineda's complete recovery and the trades for Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano have not only resuscitated the Yankees but have made them better. Before Tanaka's injury, the rotation's ERA was 4.00, ranked eighth in the American League. With Tanaka on the DL, the rotation's ERA is 3.36, which ranks sixth in that span.
We're not saying this group is the '86 Mets or '98 Braves. But the Yankees' starters, a ragtag bunch assembled on the fly, are doing their part. In the past month, their 3.51 ERA is better than two star-studded rotations: the Tigers (4.32) and A's (4.43).
"They've done a really good job,'' Girardi said. "It's just unfortunate we didn't have any luck on our side.''
Maybe the Yankees will get a chance to see Tanaka in a real game before this season is over, giving them a crucial read on his status for '15. He might even help down the stretch. But don't think a playoff berth depends on it.