TAMPA, Fla. – Once it became apparent that Luis Severino would not be able to pitch on Opening Day because of a shoulder issue, there was only one way the Yankees were likely to turn.
Aaron Boone didn’t make it official Friday afternoon, but he also didn’t leave much to the imagination while discussing Masahiro Tanaka, who has started three season openers for the Yankees.
“Masa has clearly shown throughout his life, really, that he’s really good in the big spot,” Boone said before Tanaka made his second exhibition start Friday night against the Tigers at Steinbrenner Field. “Certainly an Opening Day situation, he wouldn’t flinch at it. He’d be prepared.”
Boone was quick to point out that he also would be comfortable giving the ball to J.A. Happ or James Paxton when the season starts March 28 against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium. But with Tanaka, who started Opening Day from 2015-17 for the Yankees, already lined up for March 28, it doesn’t take much reading of the tea leafs to draw a conclusion.
“We’re there,” Boone said with a smile of making a decision. “We’ve kind of started to inform the guys.”
After that, presumably in a day or two, officially informing the public will follow.
Tanaka was a mixed bag Friday night, though mostly good. He allowed two runs and four hits, including a solo homer, walked one and struck out five in 3 1/3 innings in the Tigers' 6-5 victory.
Mostly utilizing a slider that Boone thought was terrific – but one Tanaka didn’t think was quite as sharp – and a bit more sparingly throwing the knuckle curveball he’s been working on since late last season, he struck out the first four batters he faced.
“I like it,” Boone said of the knuckle curve before the game. “You see it a lot now in Major League Baseball; guys that typically have a lot of success can flip that curveball in there for a strike. Masa’s one of those guys that I really feel like can do that. I know he’s playing with a knuckle curve as well. The slider is a good pitch for him. He’s continuing to kind of work on the shape of the cut fastball. So there’s not a lot Masa can’t do with the ball.”
Tanaka struck out leadoff man Daz Cameron looking at a slider, fanned Niko Goodrum swinging at a splitter and got Jeimer Candelario swinging at another slider to end the first inning.
He said afterward that tinkering with his curveball came about because of command issues.
“The previous curveball, I wasn’t able to control it the way I wanted to,” Tanaka said through his translator. “I was just trying to look for something that was more controllable. So far I feel like it’s been working well.”
Tanaka is coming off a season in which he went 12-6 with a 3.75 ERA. After some rough going early — he had a 4.68 ERA as late as July 10 — Tanaka went 5-4 with a 2.85 ERA in his last 13 starts. He again was sharp in the postseason, a trend in his Yankees career, allowing one run in five innings in a 6-2 victory over the Red Sox in Game 2 of the Division Series.
He said Boone has addressed Opening Day with him but didn’t disclose the details.
“Obviously,” Tanaka said, speaking generally of the assignment he had before, “if you’re given the opportunity to pitch on that day, you want to go out and do your best.”