TAMPA, Fla. — Masahiro Tanaka arrived for spring training in early February feeling physically “ahead” of where he was last year.
He looked the part Tuesday in his first outing of 2017.
Well, with the exception of pitch No. 1, a fastball that sailed several feet over the head of Tigers leadoff man Ian Kinsler.
“I liked everything,” Tanaka said through his translator with a smile. “Except the first pitch. Not really sure [what happened].”
It was a minor blip in an otherwise successful afternoon, albeit a brief one.
The righthander, whom Joe Girardi designated as the Opening Day starter the first day of camp, did not allow a hit in two scoreless innings in a 9-5 split-squad victory over the Tigers in front of 6,935 at Steinbrenner Field.
The only player to get on base against Tanaka was Kinsler, who reached on Chase Headley’s error. Tanaka got the next batter, Omar Infante, to ground into a 4-6-3 double play, the first of three groundouts he induced. Tanaka also struck out two, both on splitters, always a critical pitch for the 28-year-old.
“I was a bit concerned because the split was awfully bad in the bullpen,” Tanaka said. “But once I got out there, I got a better feel of the ball and it was coming out of the hand right. I think it was good.”
The ground balls were encouraging as well.
“It means that the batters are off balance,” said Tanaka, who went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 31 games last season. “So I think it’s a good sign.”
Tanaka showed up for spring training last year coming off surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow and the Yankees took things slowly as his first start didn’t come until March 6.
In that game, against the Phillies in Clearwater, scouts had his fastball at 87-91 mph and his split at 85-86.
On Tuesday, Tanaka’s velocity was up slightly as scouts in the stands had his fastball at 89-92 and his split at 86-87. Not that pitching coach Larry Rothschild is obsessing one way or the other.
“You’re talking about a tick at times and a lot’s been made out of it,” Rothschild said of Tanaka’s velocity, an annual spring training discussion ever since the pitcher suffered a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament in July 2014. “But he’s not a velocity guy. He’s a pitcher and he knows what to do when he’s got the ball in his hand and that’s what we expect.”
Of this spring compared to last, Rothschild said: “He can work on the things he needs to work on and not worry about all the speculation on where his stuff is or is there something wrong and all that. He can have a peaceful spring and just get ready.”
Tanaka is 39-16 with a 3.12 ERA in three seasons with the Yankees since signing a seven-year, $155-million deal that has an out clause in it after this year. His importance to the rotation cannot be overstated.
“For me, the pitchers who are starters, the first time out, if they’re maintaining their delivery, if they’re throwing strikes, they’re using their secondary pitches, and when they hand the ball off to the next guy they say they’re fine, it’s been a good day,” said bench coach Rob Thomson, who filled in for Girardi, who managed the Yankees’ other split-squad game in Fort Myers. “And that’s what he did.”