ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Finally, ladies and gentlemen, the Masahiro Tanaka of 2014.
The righthander, mostly average during spring training before two straight erratic outings to start the regular season, showed the form that made him the Yankees' unquestioned ace last season in a 9-0 victory over the Rays Saturday night in front of 20,824 at Tropicana Field.
Tanaka (2-1), who lowered his ERA from 7.00 to 3.94, allowed only two baserunners and struck out eight in seven innings. With a familiar devastating splitter and a fastball that topped out at 94, according to the stadium gun, he allowed two hits and no walks and appeared to toy with the young Rays lineup.
His much-discussed velocity was up a tick across the board for all of his pitches.
"Split was just nasty," one talent evaluator said. "Looked like last year's."
But it wasn't just Tanaka's splitter or slider, which catcher Brian McCann singled out, or his fastball, highlighted by pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "He had everything going," McCann said. "He did whatever he wanted tonight with the baseball."
Said Rays rookie manager Kevin Cash, a former Yankees catcher: "He had everything; front-door two-seamers, cutters, sliders, putting guys away with splits. He's pretty tough when he's got all his pitches going."
The Yankees (5-6), who improved to 3-2 on this 10-game, three-city trip, will go for a sweep of the Rays (6-6) Sunday afternoon behind Michael Pineda.
They had 10 hits, three by McCann and two each by Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
McCann lined a two-out, two-run triple off the top of the rightfield wall in the sixth and Chris Young's grand slam capped a seven-run seventh that broke open a 2-0 game. "We needed a game like this," said Young, hitting .276 with three homers and eight RBIs this season.
As did Tanaka, Joe Girardi said. While the company line has largely been that he has been the same pitcher as last year, the results didn't say so. Nor did opposing hitters. But this looked similar to the Tanaka who started 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA in 2014.
"I think it's really important for him to see 'when I have my stuff, I'm going to pitch extremely well,' " Girardi said. "And that's what he did today."
Said Rothschild: "He was better [than the first two starts]. The command of the fastball was better. I think it's a really good step in the right direction. He hit his spots without effort. That counts more than anything."
Rays righthander Jake Odorizzi (2-1) matched Tanaka until the sixth, when McCann lined a drive to right that missed going over the fence by inches and ricocheted much of the way back toward the infield before rightfielder Steven Souza Jr. finally tracked it down. It was McCann's fourth career triple and gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead.
The game got out of hand an inning later when the Yankees sent 12 to the plate. Sacrifice flies by Gregorio Petit and Mark Teixeira sandwiched around Gardner's RBI single preceded Young's grand slam.
The Rays' David DeJesus began the first inning by smacking an 0-and-2 splitter to center for a single. Tanaka then retired 15 straight batters before allowing Brandon Guyer's leadoff double in the sixth.
"I think it's all about the mechanics," Tanaka said through his translator. "The way I was pitching, the mechanics were working well. I'm happy with the results, I'm happy with the way I pitched today. Got to get ready for the next game, though."