Never mind the Yankees' wild-card hopes as they head into the final week of this season. Nothing less than Masahiro Tanaka's future as the ace of their pitching staff will be at stake when he takes the mound Sunday for the first time since July 8.
The fearful specter of Tommy John surgery has receded as Tanaka has undergone successful rehabilitation of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. But his condition really can't be gauged until he faces major-league hitters in a game that counts as the Yankees try to stay alive in the wild-card race.
"Yeah, I think that's a way you could look at it," manager Joe Girardi said before the Yankees faced the Blue Jays on Saturday at Yankee Stadium. "The big thing is if he gets out of this healthy for us. And that he feels good about it and he feels good about making another start. It might give us a decent idea of what we're going to have next year."
Alarm bells went off when Tanaka, who had been utterly dominant all season, gave up four earned runs and then five earned runs in back-to-back starts in Minnesota and Cleveland just before the All-Star break. But 75 days later, Tanaka is ready to see if he's the same pitcher who was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA, 135 strikeouts and 19 walks in 1291/3 innings.
"I'm excited, but not overly," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "Once I get up there on the mound, I have to make sure and see if I'm OK pitching in the big-league atmosphere. Also, I'm happy that I will be able, hopefully, to contribute to the team's winning."
Tanaka has been in his usual routine for about two weeks, and Girardi said he was clocked at 92-93 miles per hour in a recent simulated game. Consultation with his doctor has given Tanaka confidence that his arm is in good shape.
Rather than fret over lost time and the bad break he received after making a spectacular MLB debut, Tanaka said he will "treasure" the time off as an opportunity to become a better baseball player.
Asked if he has modest expectations for his comeback, Tanaka made it clear that's not his nature. "I'm not really thinking that way," he said. "I'm not in any way going to lower my expectations going out there. I want to check and see what I'm able to do coming back from the injury that I had."
Does that mean throwing all his pitches? "Definitely," he said.
Girardi said Tanaka will be limited to 75 pitches and probably five innings against the Blue Jays. "We've said this is going to be the real test when the intensity is turned up and the atmosphere is what he's used to being in," Girardi said. "We're going to find out a lot [Sunday]."