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Just when Masahiro Tanaka starts to get a leg up, he gets a leg in the way

Righthander takes 111-mph comebacker off right shin to end his third straight solid outing.

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees reacts against the

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees reacts against the Rays during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

The Rays finally got to Masahiro Tanaka with two outs in the sixth inning Saturday. The Yankees’ starter had mostly been cruising at the Stadium, turning in no-run, two-hit, no-walk work to that point. Then Ji-Man Choi doubled and Yandy Diaz knocked Tanaka out of the game.

It wasn’t because of another hit. It was due to a hard-hit one-hopper that smashed off Tanaka’s right shin, a little above the ankle. The ball deflected right to Luke Voit near the first-base bag, and he stepped on it for the final out of the inning. Tanaka stepped toward the dugout and yelled, upset about being struck.

The Yankees ended up losing in 11 innings, 2-1, but they could feel somewhat positive about Tanaka’s shin because the X-rays were negative. The injury was deemed a contusion. Tanaka said via his translator that there was “some swelling and some blueness to it.” 

The question is: Will he be able to make his next start? The answer is: To be determined.

“Can’t say for now,” Tanaka said. “We’ll see how it is [Sunday], and I guess we can evaluate from there.”

Tanaka wasn't sweating out the situation while heading to the X-ray room.

“I never thought the bone was broken,” he said. “But I learned after that, it was 111 miles [per hour] coming off and it got me pretty good. So I was obviously feeling it.”

Otherwise, there was a lot to feel good about when it came to Tanaka. After a four-start stretch that included three subpar outings, he tossed his third straight quality start and second straight while matched against 2018 American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Tampa Bay. 

Tanaka, who beat Snell, 7-1, last Sunday at Tropicana Field, struck out six. Sixty of his 88 pitches were in the strike zone. So he gave up one run, eight hits and no walks and fanned 13 in 13 innings in the two starts.

His record remained at 3-3 after the no-decision and his ERA fell to 3.09 after 10 starts. Tanaka has allowed two or fewer earned runs seven times.

“He’s been mostly good all year,” Aaron Boone said. “Even in the outings where he struggled, if you look at them, it’s just a stretch of batters that have gotten him in trouble or maybe one or two starts where he didn’t have it, which is going to happen every now and again … 

“He’s been kind of searching for that nasty split that he hasn’t really had yet, but he’s been pitching really well. And I thought again today the slider was such a good pitch for him. The split was a factor … He didn’t make any mistakes with his fastball and was really in command of that game until he finally had to come out.”                     

There were good signs from Tanaka right off the bat. He retired the Rays 1-2-3 in the first. Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham and Choi went down swinging, Meadows and Choi on fastballs and Pham on a slider, although Tanaka still thinks that pitch can be even better. 

Tanaka had runners reach on an error and an infield hit in the second, but he stranded them. He gave up a single to Pham in the third. Then he allowed that sixth-inning double.

So what’s behind Tanaka’s recent improvement, especially in these last two outings?

“I think the fact that the splitter’s starting to come back,” he said. “Also, just putting myself in favorable counts. Those are probably the reasons.”               

Now the Yankees will have to monitor the shin situation. At least the X-rays didn’t show anything of note.

“So that was good,” Boone said. “But we’ll just have to see how he comes in [Sunday] and how he bounces back during these next couple of days.”

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