TAMPA, Fla. — Joe Girardi delivered a blunt message and took the rare step of doing so through the media.
Masahiro Tanaka has been inconsistent during spring training, and on Monday, Girardi said the Yankees need to see him “dial it up” Tuesday against the Phillies in his final start before he names him the Opening Day starter on Monday against the Astros at the Stadium.
“Want to make sure we feel that he’s ready and that he feels good about where he’s at before we really talk about who’s going to be our Opening Day starter,” Girardi said before Monday night’s game against the Tigers at Steinbrenner Field.
Tanaka said through his translator that he had not heard that message from Girardi, but he indicated that pitching coach Larry Rothschild might have.
The 27-year-old righthander has frustrated the Yankees recently, especially in his previous start Wednesday against the Nationals. He allowed seven runs, including six in the third inning, and nine hits, including two home runs, in four innings.
Tanaka’s second consecutive subpar outing ballooned his ERA to 7.36 in four starts and led to the Yankees’ decision to attempt to light a fire under him. They asked him to ramp things up in the bullpen between starts, then bring that intensity into Tuesday’s game. His fastball has sat in the range of 88-89 mph, according to scouts, slightly off from spring training in previous years, and his stuff overall has not been crisp.
“We want to see him dial it up a little bit,” Girardi said. “I think it’s important we see something.”
Tanaka described his camp as “not at my best” but added, “It’s a time where you can test things.”
Still, he did not dispute the significance of his performance Tuesday.
“Absolutely, it’s a very important start for me,” he said. “My last start before the season starts and I’d like to see results.”
During the offseason, Tanaka had a bone spur removed from his right elbow, which also had a slight ligament tear in 2014. Opposing teams’ scouts suspect he has been protecting the elbow, not wanting to go full bore with it until he absolutely has to in the regular season.
Girardi said that’s fine, but only to a point.
“I think it’s a veteran guy in a sense, even though he’s not that old, that kind of takes his time easing into it,” he said. “But we’re pretty close to the start of the season.”
And if the Yankees don’t see that “dialing up” Tuesday in Clearwater?
“We have enough people that could pitch,” Girardi said. “Our hope is he’s really good [Tuesday] and it’s a non-issue.”
Although starting Tanaka next Monday remains the safe bet, the Yankees could turn to Luis Severino. The 22-year-old has been terrific, and he struck out 12 in six innings Monday in a minor-league game. Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda also have pitched well this month.
Girardi said he can’t be sure if Tanaka is holding himself back because he’s worried about damaging the elbow, even though the pitcher continually has said, and repeated Monday, it’s completely healthy.
“I’m sure it’s possible that’s in the back of his mind,” Girardi said. “But we’ve seen him throw well. We saw him throw some really good games last year and he wasn’t holding back.
“Anyone’s arm could [get hurt] anytime. A guy that maybe doesn’t even have a sign, who’s never had an injury, it could happen. It just does. But you have to go out there and have your best stuff if you can.”