Joe Girardi relying on Masahiro Tanaka to be durable

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees looks on in Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees looks on in the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, May 3, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

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.

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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.