Masahiro Tanaka shows signs of why the Yankees signed him

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees rubs up a Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees rubs up a baseball in the first inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4, 2014 at Rogers Centre in Toronto. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Tom Szczerbowski

advertisement | advertise on newsday

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 ...

TORONTO - The reporters were lined up in two neat columns, side by side, with a six-foot- wide path in the middle that led from the dugout steps to the AstroTurf field. Many of the Yankees passed through that chute Friday on their way to the pregame stretch at Rogers Centre.

But not the one those TV cameras desperately wanted.

Masahiro Tanaka was back in the clubhouse, sitting at his locker, carefully wiping down his glove and applying lotion to the leather with a sanitary sock.

Tanaka has everything a young player could possibly want -- the $155-million contract, a rotation spot with the Yankees, the adoration of an entire country back in Japan.

Peace and quiet, however, tends to be in short supply. So Tanaka enjoyed those fleeting moments before making his major-league debut against the Blue Jays and beginning what the Yankees hope will be a long and successful career in the Bronx.

A few hours later, with Tanaka standing exposed on the mound, the world would be watching.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The eyes that are on you when you first come over are unimaginable," Ichiro Suzuki said through his interpreter. "But we're here in the States, so it's not like we're back in Japan, witnessing what's happening over there. Maybe that's kind of a saving grace, that you're not experiencing that madness. Maybe we're shielded a little bit from it."

Afterward, Tanaka admitted that maybe he wasn't so protected after all. He was, in fact, nervous, as much as he had been during the Japan Championship Series last October, and that affected his focus in the first two innings, when the Blue Jays did the bulk of their limited damage.

Still, Tanaka guided the Yankees to a 7-3 victory and ran his personal winning streak to 29 with an eight-strikeout, zero-walk performance.

"Obviously I'm happy," Tanaka said through his interpreter. "But I think number one is that I'm relieved."

After a relatively smooth six weeks in Tampa, the training wheels came off Friday night at Rogers Centre, where Tanaka needed to steady himself on more than a few occasions.

As he threw his first warm-up pitches, the Opening Night crowd created an indoor blizzard effect by waving white towels to thumping music.

But the loudest noise was produced by the bat of Melky Cabrera, who hammered Tanaka's third pitch -- it looked to be a flat split-fingered fastball -- high into the right-centerfield seats. Tanaka turned to watch the entire flight, from contact to splashdown, then gestured for another ball.

"I'm sure he probably wants to get out there, get over the first-game jitters, the butterflies," Derek Jeter had said. "It's good to get them out of the way."

Cabrera's rocket must have scattered some of those butterflies, but not all. It took another inning for Tanaka to harness that nervous energy, and by the third, he felt in control. Relying more on his fastball -- and added confidence -- Tanaka allowed only two hits in the final five innings of his seven-inning debut.

"I thought he settled down great," Joe Girardi said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

By that stage of the game, Tanaka had graduated from feeling pressure to applying it. The special ones do that.

"With all the expectations, those things can pile up on you," said Ichiro, who was a pioneer for Japanese position players when he broke in with the Mariners in 2001. "You're not doing this as a hobby. This is a responsibility that has been given to us. You have to perform, and it can be scary to be out there on the field."

Tanaka wasn't perfect Friday night. But he did show us that he's capable of handling this next step -- and all the scrutiny that comes with it.

You also may be interested in: