David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
On some days, the Yankees can look old, or broken, or simply not worth the $200-million tab. On others, however, as in Sunday’s 4-3 victory over the Mariners, it all makes sense. And when that happens, the pitching staff usually is the main reason why.
When Masahiro Tanaka shows the guile he did Sunday in becoming the first Yankees starter this season to complete seven innings, everything else just feels easier. Not easy. Just easier. Because handing a one-run lead over to Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller these days is a layup, a two-foot putt.
After Tanaka weaved his way through the dicey middle innings, he combined with Betances and Miller to retire the last 13 Mariners, including nine by strikeout. It was the most complete all-around pitching performance — from start to finish — the Yankees have assembled thus far, and the type that makes us believe they might be capable of greater things.
Before Sunday, the Yankees’ rotation totaled 52 2⁄3 innings through the first 10 games — only four teams had fewer — and their 5.60 ERA was the third-worst in baseball. In the bigger picture, the team had lost four straight, so the Yankees hoped for more than just innings Sunday from Tanaka. They needed a stopper-caliber effort, which is what he provided.
Tanaka featured the best velocity of his three starts, with an average of 93.2 mph and a 94.5 max, according to BrooksBaseball.net. As Brian McCann noted, operating at that speed makes Tanaka’s trademark splitter far more dangerous and allows him to be the ace he’s supposed to be.
“I think his arm was feeling better,” McCann said. “Any time you see 92-94 out of him, everything plays up. He got in a groove and just locked in.”
It took a few innings to get there, however. The Mariners nicked him for a 1-0 lead in the first without a hard-hit ball, finding holes in the infield for three consecutive singles. But Tanaka stranded a pair that inning by whiffing Adam Lind, then needed only 18 pitches to get through the next two.
“Certainly there was some unluckiness there,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “But if I put my head down there, I probably get more unlucky.”
Actually, Tanaka was victimized by a few more bad breaks. A rare error by Mark Teixeira led to an unearned run in the fourth. The Mariners got their final run in the fifth with the help of Jacoby Ellsbury, whose reckless decision to dive for Norichika Aoki’s sinking liner transformed a one-out single into a damaging triple. But Tanaka made sure those mistakes were not fatal by pitching his way clear of further trouble.
It’s probably not a stretch to say some of that determination came from going head-to-head with Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma, his former teammate in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. There was some pride at stake, no doubt.
As for Joe Girardi, it was a relief to not be on the phone in the fourth inning for a change. A day earlier, CC Sabathia imploded without warning, and in six of the Yankees’ first 10 games, the starter failed to make it into the sixth. It was a trend that couldn’t continue, and Tanaka followed the blueprint the Yankees have been dying to use since Opening Day.
“I don’t always draw it up 4-3,” Girardi said. “But it’s important that every guy does his job.”
Betances and Miller couldn’t do it much better, striking out all six of the Mariners they faced Sunday. Betances has whiffed eight straight, and 14 of his last 15 outs have been Ks. Miller has struck out seven straight and has fanned a dozen of the 17 batters to face him this season. Between the two, they have struck out 27 in 11 innings.
The bullpen has been the dream team Brian Cashman imagined — even before Aroldis Chapman’s May 9 return from a 30-day suspension.
“Those guys are ridiculous,” McCann said. “They’re as uncomfortable an at-bat as you can have in baseball.”
Remember, this is without Chapman, the closer who throws 100-plus. We’ve all been harping on the need for the Yankees to get more quality length from their rotation, but adding Chapman is only going to shorten games. Once in a while, the Yankees will just have to score enough to give them a day or two off.
That formula, as we were reminded Sunday, will be very tough to beat.