WASHINGTON - Two days before his start on Opening Day, Masahiro Tanaka had a message Saturday for Yankees fans:
My fastball has fallen. And it's not getting up.
"I'm going to try and establish a certain pitching style this year, so it is not the wisest to ask for velocity from me this year," Tanaka said through his translator before the Yankees faced Washington in their final exhibition game.
Tanaka will make his first Opening Day start as a Yankee on Monday against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. He is pitching with a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. After resting and rehabbing for 10 weeks last summer in an effort to avoid Tommy John surgery, Tanaka made two starts in September and then was brought along slowly in spring training.
In his final exhibition outing on Tuesday, Tanaka's fastball was clocked from 89 to 91 miles per hour with a high of 92. The peak velocity is down more than a few ticks from last season, when he went 13-3 with a 2.77 ERA.
Last year, Tanaka's fastball averaged 91.1 mph, but he had the ability to get above 95 when necessary. It's unclear if the ability to dial it up in a big spot will be there this season.
"I think, in terms of miles per hour, it will be lower than last year," Tanaka said.
As recently as Thursday, Tanaka sang a different tune. When asked if he can throw harder, he said: "Yes, I've been throwing that in the past, and if I wanted to, I could."
Perhaps Tanaka was trying to lower expectations on Saturday. Maybe he was trying to put a bug in the Blue Jays' ears to get an edge for Monday. Or maybe he really doesn't know what's going to happen when the games begin to count.
One thing is certain: The Yankees need Tanaka to be healthy and perform as well as he did in his rookie season if they are going to contend for a playoff spot.
The Yankees volunteered throughout spring training that Tanaka's velocity might be down because he is throwing more two-seam sinking fastballs and fewer four-seam heaters.
"I think, yes, because of the fact I'm throwing more two-seamers, that could make the velocity go down a bit," Tanaka said. "As far as my pitching style and my mechanics, I'm trying to relax a little bit more when I'm throwing, so that might have to do with it a little bit."
Tanaka threw 142/3 innings in spring training and pitched to a 3.07 ERA. Last year, he threw 21 innings with a 2.14 ERA in spring training and then started the season 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA in his first 14 outings.
"I don't think I was perfect last year," Tanaka said. "I think I could have been better last year. I'm always trying to progress. I'm not really worried. I'm just trying to move forward and become a better pitcher."
But can he do that without all of his weapons? Tanaka didn't even sound 100 percent confident in his world-class splitter. That's the pitch -- more than the fastball -- that led the Yankees to shell out $175 million in salary and posting fee to sign Tanaka in the first place.
"Overall, I think it's where I want it to be," he said. "It's pretty good. But it kind of differs from day to day, so I have to make that little adjustment day to day.''