Window is starting to close on Masahiro Tanaka's return this season

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Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees walks to the Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees walks to the dugout after an inning against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, May 31, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.

TORONTO - I've covered Major League Baseball for longer than Derek Jeter has played it, and I had never heard a pitcher describe his whole arm as being the problem.

Not the shoulder. Not the elbow. Not the wrist. The entire length of his arm.

But that's how Masahiro Tanaka described the condition responsible for sending him back to New York on the first flight out Saturday morning. The Yankees didn't provide any further details about what's bothering Tanaka because that's how he explained it to them, too.

So everyone decided the best course of action would be to have Tanaka head home, delay his next bullpen session for another four or five days, and continue his rehab program at Yankee Stadium.

Notice that we didn't mention surgery. And as the Yankees head into September, that's not necessarily a good thing.

Not that we're advocating Tommy John surgery for Tanaka. The team's medical staff -- along with a second and third opinion -- already has said the partial tear of his UCL is manageable without it. My degree is in English, so I won't argue with some of the nation's top orthopedists on this one.

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But the longer Tanaka is neither pitching nor having the elbow ligament fixed, the worse this problem becomes.

Forget about Tanaka's impact for the playoff chase. Or even how he might help the Yankees in October if they end up getting that far.

This is now about 2015. And if Tanaka remains in this foggy state of perpetual rehab, without the Yankees ever seeing him pitch on a major-league mound, this queasy feeling is going to follow everyone to Steinbrenner Field in February.

For $175 million, that's one giant, costly headache for Brian Cashman and Co. as they try to build a rotation for next season.

Friday's development was an abrupt turn from the optimism a day earlier after Tanaka's simulated game at Comerica Park. The filthy splitter was back, his elbow survived and the Yankees were confident that he would stay on schedule for another sim session Tuesday in Tampa.

But then Tanaka informed the team of his general arm soreness and the plan was scrapped -- for a half-measure that seems to do nothing but punt the issue a little further downfield.

Again, we're not forcing surgery on anyone here. It's just that Tanaka and the Yankees are stuck in no man's land trying to find a way to get him pitching again -- or at the very least having a ballpark idea of when he might be able to.

"If you shut him down, it's surgery," Joe Girardi said before Friday night's 6-3 win over the Blue Jays. "So it's not like it's going to be, well, let's wait to see how it is next year. We're going to see and it's either he's healthy or he needs surgery."

That has been the strategy since early July, when it was decided to take the non-surgical approach of platelet-rich plasma injections and a six-week rehab. But after all that waiting, the Yankees don't seem as close to a resolution as they should be.

So far, Tanaka has shown he can throw 49 pitches, to Brendan Ryan, in an empty stadium.

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Then wake up hurting the next morning.

To borrow one of Girardi's favorite sayings, that's not what you want.

Despite the red flag, Tanaka insists he's not closing the door on a return to the majors in September. "We still have a whole month left," he said through his interpreter. "I'm going to go ahead and strengthen this and do my best to try to get back."

Though this pothole doesn't mean it's back to square one for Tanaka, stalling the process for another week is draining precious days from the schedule.

On Thursday, Girardi said Tanaka would require a minimum of two more simulated games before a return. That put Tanaka somewhere in mid-September. Now add at least another week, and the window narrows considerably.

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Even the Yankees aren't sure what to hope for anymore.

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