David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - As soon as Ryan Goins pounded one last splitter into the artificial turf, John Ryan Murphy thrust up his arms in celebration, a display of emotion usually reserved for late September or October, not August.
During the past two games, however, there has been a playoff-like urgency inside Rogers Centre, and Masahiro Tanaka was plugged into that vibe Saturday against the Blue Jays.
In what was billed as his biggest start since he joined the Yankees, based on the AL East implications, Tanaka delivered his best all-around performance: a five-hit, eight-strikeout complete game that his teammates marveled at after the 4-1 victory.
Even Tanaka, who usually maintains a poker face between the lines, couldn't help himself. After the final out, he broke into a wide smile, punched his fist into his glove and high-fived Chase Headley. That's when Murphy, his trusty co-pilot, came in for the bear hug. "As good as it gets," Murphy said.
The previous night, David Price -- Toronto's deadline-imported ace -- got tripped up by Headley's eighth-inning RBI double and wasn't allowed to finish the job, leaving with a two-run lead in what became a 4-3 loss to the Yankees. The next day, against a retooled Jays team that has the potential to make Brian Cashman look bad for standing pat, Tanaka took the heat off him by going all the way and pitching like the ace he's supposed to be.
"I think it's why he came here," said Joe Girardi, who didn't hesitate to call this Tanaka's most important win. "I think he wanted this opportunity."
Yet in the fifth inning, Tanaka was one pitch away from having it all come apart.
After a walk to Goins and a single by Ben Revere, Tanaka walked Troy Tulowitzi on four pitches. With the bases loaded, none out and the dangerous Josh Donaldson up next, pitching coach Larry Rothschild headed to the mound for a chat.
Once Rothschild left, Tanaka fell behind 2-and-0. In that type of situation, against the likely AL MVP, there is "not giving in" and there is suicide. It was a risky path, but Tanaka got a victory of sorts when Donaldson managed only to hit a slider deep enough to leftfield for a sacrifice fly. He followed by whiffing Jose Bautista with a splitter and getting Edwin Encarnacion to pop up another splitter. Crisis averted.
"I just couldn't get the strikes going," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "But I was hanging in there battling. My thought was just keep them to the minimum, so that was good."
From there, Tanaka didn't make Girardi sweat much. Counting the sacrifice fly, he retired 15 of the final 16 to give the bullpen a crucial day off after Andrew Miller finished Friday night's win on fumes.
When Tanaka ended the eighth at 104 pitches, we figured Girardi might put a bow on his day, with the persistent concerns about preserving him for the long haul. But Tanaka's start came with an extra day's rest, and he seemed to be cruising late. "You evaluate his pitches, and he wasn't overthrowing," Girardi said. "We had him on a short leash, but we sent him back out there."
That felt like a statement by Girardi, who'd rather irritate a starter by taking him out early than pull him too late. He believed Tanaka had earned the shot at going the distance, and as the Yankees' ace, it's his privilege. "My mindset was if they would allow me to go, I would like to go," Tanaka said. "I wanted to go out there. I was actually pumped up and happy."
Tanaka already has proved the skeptics wrong by not only surviving into August but serving as the No. 1 the Yankees have insisted he would be, even without going the Tommy John surgery route to repair last year's UCL tear. That decision still vaguely lingers over each of his starts, but he's turned the volume way down on the chatter, and performances like this one suggest that both he and the Yankees are successfully monitoring any workload concerns.
As long as he keeps pitching like this, they shouldn't have anything to worry about.