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Masahiro Tanaka is Cy frontrunner, but season is still Young

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. Credit: Jim McIsaac

To R.A. Dickey, after what he witnessed Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, the Cy Young race in the American League is over.

Congratulations, Masahiro Tanaka.

"He's got a plan," Dickey said, impressed by the way Tanaka handled the powerful Blue Jays' lineup. "And if continues to execute that plan, he's going to win the Cy Young. Book it."

Dickey knows what he's talking about. He won the NL Cy Young in 2012 with the Mets and has a pretty good idea what's involved over the course of a six-month season. For him, it took mental strength, maybe some lucky bounces and more than a few injections of the potent anti-inflammatory, Toradol.

But to be that good, for that long, is a high-wire act, with a tiny margin for error that seems to tighten during the September stretch run. Tanaka, a rookie by major-league standards, has looked like anything but through his first 14 starts, going 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA and a 7.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio, third best in the majors.

Now comes the hard part. Limiting the inevitable lulls that creep into the most spectacular seasons -- see Tanaka's May 20 start at Wrigley Field, his only loss -- and staying strong enough to finish the job. Dickey's unique challenge was being 37 years old with a torn abdominal muscle. Tanaka still is transitioning to the greater demands of pitching in the States, with its five-day schedule as opposed to once a week in Japan.

The Yankees closely monitored Tanaka's workload in spring training and will give him every chance for a breather during the regular season. But as the undisputed ace of a nicked-up rotation, much like Dickey was for the Mets in '12, Tanaka is shouldering a heavy load.

"I will say this: the first 20 or 22 starts felt a lot different than the last 11 or 12," Dickey said. "You're getting up there in innings. And then you start having people talk about the Cy Young, asking you questions about it.

"So now you're starting to think, well, I'm having a great season. I have a chance here to do something fairly special. How am I going to hold on to that? And holding on to that for me got to be tiring."

Dickey made 33 starts that season, the most of his career, and piled up 233 2/3 innings, which led the NL. Only Justin Verlander (238 1/3) had more. During his seven seasons in Japan, Tanaka never made more than 28 starts, which he did once in 2007. He's had 27 twice. Tanaka's career high in innings was 226 1/3 in 2011.

Currently, Tanaka is on pace for 240 innings this season, so that's new territory, obviously. It also puts him on par with CC Sabathia, who won the '07 Cy after throwing 241 innings for the Indians. That also was a career high for Sabathia, who had never pitched more than 210. The year before, Sabathia threw 192 1/3, so that was a big jump. Not one that Sabathia said he noticed, however.

"I didn't feel like it was a grind," Sabathia said. "I knew we had a really good team and I was just kind of locked into that. I think that turned into me winning the Cy Young, I guess. I felt it was more of a team accomplishment to me because that was my main goal at the time."

With Sabathia leading the way, those '07 Indians won 96 games and the AL Central title before losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS. Compare that with the '12 Mets, who finished 14 games under .500 (74-88) during Dickey's signature season. Sabathia, 27 at the time, was an intimidator who could overpower hitters with a high-90s fastball. Dickey sees more of himself in Tanaka.

"I didn't feel like I could just pop out there and be dominant," Dickey said. "I felt like I really had to get analytical with it, so that was also more taxing. Like CC , the year he won it, he was just blowing guys away.

"So you're watching him going, it's like Shaquille O'Neal dunking. He should be able to dunk. He's 7-2. For me, it was like Spud Webb trying to dunk. He does it, and you're like, how did he just do that? I look back on that year and I'm like, how did I just do that?"

It's no mystery with Tanaka. As someone who can appreciate deception, Dickey marveled at his ability to change speeds and keep hitters off balance.

"I thought he was brilliant," Dickey said. "One of the things I think is working to his advantage right now is the fact that guys here are used to guys throwing more fastballs. So if you can command breaking pitches like he can, with that split and that slider -- watch out. He pitches backwards [in the count] too, and he's got great location when he does use his fastball."

Dickey's success is tied to that as well. In relying on the knuckler, only 13.1 percent of his pitches are fastballs, the lowest percentage in the majors. But Tanaka is fairly low among conventional pitchers -- he ranks ninth at 42.4 percent. Bartolo Colon throws the most fastballs (82.4).

With an expanded variety of pitches, and less of a need to lean on velocity, Tanaka could be better equipped to deal with the demands of the six-month season -- along with what feels like an inevitable Cy Young chase. Getting on this type of roll early doesn't hurt, either. It makes it easier to shake off those bloop singles or leadoff homers, as Tanaka has done.

"When something like that happens, and the season is going the way it is, you have this kind of inner confidence that you're going to be able to get the double-play ball, you're going to be able to strike out back-to-back guys," Dickey said. "Like you're going to be able to do whatever it takes because that's the way it's been going, you know? Internally, you want to ride that for as long as you can."

Tanaka won the Sawamura Award -- the Japanese equivalent to the Cy Young -- twice, including 2013, so he's been on a roll for a while now. It doesn't look to be ending any time soon.

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