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Masahiro Tanaka believes he's back to his early 2014 self

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka throws

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka throws against the Seattle Mariners in the sixth inning of a game, Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Seattle. Photo Credit: AP / Ted S. Warren

Masahiro Tanaka feels as if he's back.

No, not to the pitcher he was before getting hurt this season.

He said he feels like the pitcher he was pre-injury last year, when he went 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 992/3 innings in his first 14 starts.

"I think [how I feel is] pretty similar to the good run that I had last year," Tanaka said through his translator Sunday as he prepared for Tuesday night's start against the Nationals at the Stadium.

That comment might -- or should -- send shivers through the Yankees' AL East rivals.

Before the season, the Yankees' hopes of winning the division rested on a variety of factors. The state of Tanaka's right elbow, given that he suffered a slight ulnar collateral tear that cost him 10 weeks in 2014, was near the top of the list, if not at the top.

Reviews were mixed in spring training and through four starts this season as he went 2-1 with a 3.22 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 221/3 innings. There were flashes of his early dominance from last season, but there also were many more hard-hit balls than Tanaka and the Yankees were used to seeing. His peak fastball velocity, down from 95 mph to 92, wasn't the same.

Tanaka landed on the 15-day disabled list on April 29 with a strained right forearm and right wrist tendinitis, with many fearing the inevitability of something more serious to come.

But his rehab went smoothly and his return Wednesday afternoon against the Mariners could not have gone much better.

As general manager Brian Cashman said the next day on SiriusXM's MLB Radio: "He was in total command."

Tanaka allowed one run, three hits (all in the third inning) and no walks in seven innings, struck out nine and retired the last 13 in the Yankees' 3-1 victory, improving to 3-1 with a 2.76 ERA.

When asked what was most encouraging about the outing, Tanaka said, "The command of my balls and also how sharp all my pitches were."

But there also was this: the return of his missing velocity, which had been downplayed by Tanaka and the Yankees but by few others. On Wednesday, his fastball peaked at 96 and reached 95 a handful of times.

Through the hysteria of the spring training velocity watch, pitching coach Larry Rothschild maintained that it was a case of taking a bit more time to build arm strength. That was largely dismissed, though, even though many power pitchers talk about needing a couple of months to do that.

Tanaka mentioned that Sunday and said, "Plus the fact the weather was getting warmer."

Though Tanaka said "command of my pitches" is more important than velocity, John Ryan Murphy, who caught the last six innings of his start Wednesday after Brian McCann got hurt, called the velocity jump "huge."

"The reason it's important for him is because it makes everything else he throws that much better," Murphy said, echoing the thoughts of opposing teams' scouts, not to mention hitters.

"The split and the slider are already nasty. With the velocity in the hitter's head, too, they have to protect for that, and it's going to make it hard to hit both or all three. Any time you add velocity, it makes everything else in your repertoire better."

A repertoire that suddenly looks the way it did during the first half of 2014. That's good news for the Yankees. The rest of the AL East? Not so much.


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