David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
On a pleasant, 67-degree afternoon at Yankee Stadium, the 2014 season flashed before Joe Girardi's eyes. In a blink, on May 3, it was almost over.
Maybe Girardi wouldn't admit that later, once a 9-3 victory over the Rays had been secured. But you know it's what he was thinking when David DeJesus drilled a one-hop grounder off the ankle of Masahiro Tanaka in the second inning.
Fortunately, the ball clipped the mound first, and the glancing blow looked worse than it could have been. But Tanaka still was knocked off his feet, which caused a few anxious moments in the Yankees' dugout as the $155-million pitcher dusted himself off.
"He got smoked," Brian McCann said.
Girardi, flanked by trainer Steve Donohue, made it to the top step before Tanaka waved them away. On any other occasion, the two would have visited the mound for a precautionary trip, just for a quick checkup. But in this case, with his staff in shambles, Girardi probably felt that ignorance was bliss. If Tanaka says he's OK, we'll take his word for it. Perhaps just this one time.
Coming off a 14-inning loss, Girardi didn't want bad news, and certainly not any that involved Tanaka, who has become the only reliable starter in his shaky rotation.
That's not an exaggeration. The numbers don't lie. By gutting through Saturday's 113-pitch effort and giving up eight hits but only three runs in seven innings, Tanaka improved to 4-0 with a 2.53 ERA in six starts. Remove him, and the Yankees' rotation is 9-10 with a 5.06 ERA that would rank 13th in the American League, above only the White Sox (5.38) and Twins (5.85).
Maybe some considered Tanaka a luxury purchase during the offseason when the Yankees blew away the other bidders for his services. But Brian Cashman, backed by the Steinbrenner financial might, knew differently. They desperately needed the 25-year-old Tanaka to stabilize a rotation that would be challenged by age (CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda) and uncertainty (Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda).
Tanaka was a roll of the dice, of course, having never before stepped on a major-league mound. But now he's the closest to a sure thing in the Yankees' employ -- a starting pitcher who can't lose.
Tanaka stretched his regular-season unbeaten streak to 32 games, although he had to dodge a number of Tampa Bay bullets to stick around. Not to mention home runs by Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers.
"All my pitches, they weren't there today," Tanaka said through his interpreter. "Everything wasn't crisp. I just tried to keep myself intact, and that's basically what I did out there.''
Intact is a good word. After the DeJesus skipping-stone nailed him, Tanaka barely avoided a much more serious blow when James Loney's sixth-inning liner headed directly toward his face. Tanaka flashed his glove up in time to deflect the ball, but it was a close call.
Tanaka had retired five straight after getting roughed up early, and Loney's missile was the only disturbance of his late finishing effort.
With his bullpen drained, Girardi wanted to squeeze as much as possible from Tanaka. But it didn't look as if he would be sticking around for long after he threw 43 pitches in the first two innings.
Before the game, Girardi again talked about how this is different from Japan, where starters have only one turn a week and therefore can be pushed harder with higher pitch counts.
Despite that call for caution, however, Girardi considered nudging Tanaka further Saturday, even beyond 113 pitches, which eclipsed his high of 108 in his previous start.
After Tanaka fought back from a 3-and-0 count to whiff Jennings and end the seventh inning, Girardi planned to send him back out to face Matt Joyce leading off the eighth. The Yankees changed his mind by tacking on two runs in the bottom of the seventh for a 6-3 lead. But his willingness to extend Tanaka gives you an idea of just how hard this team is leaning on him these days.
When Girardi hands Tanaka the ball, it's not as though the manager is hoping for a competitive effort. The Yankees now are dependent on him.
"Yeah, I think that's fair to say," Girardi said. "I think you know what you're going to get from him. He's going to give you distance and give you every opportunity to win."
Saturday was more about surviving for Tanaka, and the Yankees are lucky that he did.