David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
We’ve all tried to separate the hype from the reality when it comes to Masahiro Tanaka, but after his first three starts, that’s becoming harder to do.
During Wednesday’s domination of the Cubs, Tanaka struck out 10 over eight scoreless innings, and allowed only a pair of bunt singles – the first coming on a successful challenge by Chicago manager Rick Renteria.
The rebuilding Cubs are terrible, and the first-pitch temperature in the Bronx was 43 degrees, not exactly hitter-friendly. But Tanaka also had to deal with the same chilly conditions, which can make the baseball feel like a cue ball and mess with a pitcher’s grip.
Watching Tanaka, however, you’d never know it. On the contrary, he looked more comfortable Wednesday than in his two previous starts, when he was bruised by early runs. This time, Tanaka was Teflon from the jump, with the Cubs barely touching him.
They were so lost that Anthony Rizzo – the No. 3 hitter – opened the seventh inning by poking a bunt single to the vacant side of the infield left empty by the Yankees’ exaggerated defensive shift. Rizzo wound up as the only Cub that made it as far as second base, but was stranded when Tanaka coolly retired the next three in order, and he whiffed Junior Lake on a diving splitter to escape.
“You don’t face too many starters that throw that many different pitches,” said Cubs rigthfielder Nate Schierholtz, who was caught looking at a 93-mph fastball in the fourth. “He can throw any pitch at any time.”
Tanaka had a better slider than he’s shown recently, and combined with the trademark splitter, he didn’t go to his curveball much. He still had plenty to befuddle the Cubs, and the 10 Ks upped his total to 28 strikeouts through three starts, breaking the 27-year-old Yankees record held by Al Leiter.
Wednesday was Leiter’s first turn in the YES broadcast booth this season, so he found it a funny coincidence. That year, in 1987, Leiter was called up for a Sept. 15 start and reeled off 25 strikeouts against the Brewers, Blue Jays and Orioles. Leiter joked about Tanaka knocking him out of the record book, but gave serious praise to the impressive rookie.
“I think the difference-maker for him is that split-finger,” Leiter said between games of Wednesday’s doubleheader. “If he stays healthy, he has what it takes to sustain it.”
We understand why Brian Cashman labeled Tanaka the Yankees’ No. 3 starter after signing that seven-year, $155-million contract. The idea was to take some of the pressure off a newcomer to the States, a pitcher who never before had stood on a major-league mound.
But it could be argued that Tanaka is now the ace – based on his talent and the ability to adjust. Also the killer-instinct to mow down an inferior opponent like the Cubs. The Yankees saw that during their exhaustive evaluation of Tanaka and they made him their No. 1 priority before a new posting system was even in place.
Not that it mattered. The Yankees were going to blow away all bidders – a group of suitors that included the Cubs – and there’s no buyer’s remorse now. Tanaka met the insane expectations.
“He sure has,” said Yankees’ president Randy Levine. “I think it’s very obvious. We scouted him heavily, and he’s exactly what we thought. You can’t ask for any better.”
The tally through three starts: 28 strikeouts and two walks in 22 innings, along with a 2.05 ERA. After calmly handling the Cubs, Tanaka did the same with a handful of questions regarding Chicago’s failed courtship of him. It was a conversation he didn’t feel like having, and Tanaka refused to say that stifling the hapless Cubs on Wednesday convinced him he made the right choice.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “It’s just one game.”
Then we’ll answer for him: Duh. Not even a player who grew up wearing Cubbie pajamas would pick Wrigley over pinstripes these days. Unless that player was skittish about New York, and we’re not seeing that with Tanaka. Not at all. He’s proving that the hype was more than just headlines.
“It’s not every day you get a guy coming off a 24-0 season,” Joe Girardi said. “It probably would have been extremely difficult for him to live up to it.”
For the record, it's now a 30-0 regular-season undefeated streak for Tanaka, dating back to 2012.
But who's counting, right?