David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
For teams hoping to beat Masahiro Tanaka, their best shot probably won't come until the rematch. As much as Tanaka has been forced to adjust to life in the majors, the transition apparently has been worse for opponents, who can't simulate something they've never experienced before.
"You prepare as well as you can," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said before Sunday night's showdown with Tanaka. "But you really need to get in the batter's box. You need to see release points. You need to gauge velocity. You need to see spin. Some guys, it takes a couple pitches. Some guys, it takes a couple years."
The Angels' game plan against Tanaka was hardly a surprise: attack him early in the count before his lethal splitter comes into play. It nearly worked. Three of their five hits off him came on the first pitch, including the homer by David Freese that put them ahead 2-1 in the sixth.
But even without his best command, Tanaka struck out 11 in 61/3 innings and kept the Yankees close enough to rally for a 3-2 win after his departure.
Tanaka has a 31-0 regular-season winning streak since 2012, and there's a reason he has kept it intact -- a fiercely competitive streak that Joe Girardi said is in his DNA. And Tanaka rejected any talk suggesting that the chess game with opposing teams is about to become more involved as the season progresses.
"It doesn't really matter," said Tanaka, whose 11 strikeouts were the most by a Yankees rookie since Orlando Hernandez whiffed 13 against the Rangers in 1998. "I'm sure they are studying me, but I can't really worry about that. All I have to do is be better than them, to outpitch them. So it doesn't really matter to me."
Tanaka whiffed Mike Trout twice, and the two-time MVP runner-up got him for a pair of singles. Albert Pujols went 0-for-2 with a walk and strikeout against Tanaka. Other than Freese's homer, the Angels scored on J.B. Shuck's forceout grounder in the fourth inning.
Tanaka's all-world splitter baffled the Angels, as it has everyone else. But his four walks were double the total from his previous four starts and he hit a batter, so his command issues likely were a bigger problem than anything the Angels planned to do against him. "Every team's had a different approach," Brian McCann said. "I think it's too early. Once you start facing guys more than once, I'll be able to answer that question."
That's not going to happen for a while. With the current rotation, Tanaka will next start Saturday against the Rays and then miss the Angels in Anaheim. That's good news for the Yankees, as familiarity often can deflate a pitcher's dominance.
For a recent example, check out the Rangers' Yu Darvish, who made the switch from the Nippon Ham Fighters to the majors in 2012. Just like Tanaka, Darvish burst on to the scene, going 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA in his first five starts. He also had 17 walks and 33 strikeouts -- not as dominant as Tanaka, but decent nonetheless. Once Darvish embarked on his second trip through the AL West, however, his success rate dipped.
The downward trend began with start No. 9 against the Mariners -- the team that he beat in his debut -- and continued during two more rematches with AL West foes. Darvish went 0-3 with a 6.89 ERA and his strikeout/walk ratio flattened out to 16-15 during that span.
Every pitcher goes through some kind of market correction, especially newcomers, who soon discover they can't keep fooling hitters the same way forever.
Tanaka has cleared the first round of obstacles since the start of spring training -- the cultural differences, the new five-day pitching schedule, the upgrade in major-league talent -- but it doesn't get any easier.
"I'm a little bit surprised with the transition that he's made," Girardi said. "From a short distance -- but it is a distance -- he's made it seem pretty seamless. And that's a little surprising because that's not always the case when you bring any free agent [here]."
Tanaka has been better at those adjustments, for the most part. The key will be to see how long that continues.