Whenever Masahiro Tanaka takes the mound lately, the question follows him. Will this be the Tanaka of old, or will it be the shaky, tentative, lackluster shadow of the 2014 All-Star that we've seen in recent weeks?
After two innings Thursday afternoon, the answer seemed to be resoundingly negative. But that's why they play nine.
Tanaka was masterful for most of the afternoon, allowing one earned run and two hits in 72/3 innings as the Yankees defeated the A's, 6-2. He retired the final 13 Oakland batters and 18 of the last 19 -- and the only man who got on struck out but reached on a wild pitch.
It was Tanaka's first win since June 9 and acted as a palate cleanser after he went 0-1 with a 7.88 ERA in his previous three starts.
Tanaka (5-3, 3.63) threw 114 pitches, 77 for strikes, saving a bullpen that was without Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, who both needed rest days.
"More than anything, I think it was the command of my pitches," he said after the AL East-leading Yankees moved three games ahead of second-place Baltimore. "I think I was able to execute all my pitches and they were going where I wanted them to go . . . I just want to build on this."
In some ways, it was similar to his previous start, in which he gave up two runs in the first before settling down. This time his trouble came in the second.
With Tanaka nursing a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Brett Gardner's 10th homer, Brian McCann committed catcher's interference to put Josh Reddick on first, and he scored on Billy Butler's double to left.
After Tanaka walked Ike Davis, Brett Lawrie hit into a double play, but Mark Canha's double gave the A's a 2-1 lead.
That was all the A's would get, though, and the Yankees tied it in the third and went ahead in the fourth in particularly encouraging fashion.
In fact, perhaps the only thing as heartening as Tanaka's performance was the sight of their offensive spark, Jacoby Ellsbury, who produced a baserunning showcase after missing seven weeks with a sprained right knee.
Ellsbury, who returned to the lineup Wednesday night, walked against starter Jesse Chavez (4-9, 3.40) to begin the third, moved to second on Gardner's single and scored on Mark Teixeira's single to tie it at 2.
With one out in the fourth, Stephen Drew walked and Cole Figueroa slapped a liner off leaping first-base umpire John Tumpane's knee for a double. Ellsbury singled home two runs for a 4-2 lead and then went first-to-third on Gardner's single.
"I feel a lot better," Joe Girardi said. "What kind of cleared my mind more was when [Ellbury] had to stop on his base hit, the effort that that takes. That made me feel a lot better."
The Yankees made it 6-2 in the eighth when Figueroa's second double put runners on second and third with two outs and shortstop Marcus Semien's throwing error -- his 28th error of the season -- allowed two runs to score.
Meanwhile, Tanaka cruised through the lineup, answering any nagging questions with his slider and his splitter.
Asked for his first-half report card, he was blunt but optimistic. "Shaky," Tanaka said. "I went on the DL, I had some bad outings, but I was able to end it on a pretty good note."
No question marks here. Just an exclamation point.