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Masahiro Tanaka takes another step toward returning to Yankees' rotation

Yankees Derek Jeter, right, bumps fists with starting

Yankees Derek Jeter, right, bumps fists with starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka after the top of the fourth inning against the Boston Red Sox in an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

For Masahiro Tanaka, significant progress Wednesday came in being able to throw sliders, curveballs and his fabled split-fingered fastball without any discomfort.

Tanaka declared his elbow healed after throwing breaking balls for the first time during his rehab in a 35-pitch bullpen session before the Astros-Yankees game at the Stadium. He threw only fastballs in his previous bullpen session.

It was a successful next step for Tanaka, who is trying to recover from a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow without having to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Tanaka believes the injury is behind him.

"I feel that I've gotten the health to the point where the elbow is fine now," he said through a translator. "I'm more looking toward playing in a game now.

"But even with that said, I do have to be cautious about the elbow."

Tanaka added he felt a little bit rusty during the session and that "I'll have to brush that up a little bit."

He'll have plenty of time for that.

Although it signaled progress, it's still too early to start envisioning Tanaka pitching in the Yankees' rotation and leading the club to what's increasingly looking like an improbable postseason berth.

Throwing batting practice would be the next step for Tanaka, but manager Joe Girardi was unsure if Tanaka would have one more bullpen session. After facing live batters, Tanaka would need to throw a simulated game, and then appear in at least one rehab game.

"I don't have a time frame," Girardi said of Tanaka's return. "We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. The fact that he felt good today was encouraging. We'll see how he feels [today]. That's important."

With the minor-league schedule winding down, is there enough time to get Tanaka a minor-league start?

"I'm sure they could figure something out," Girardi said.

Tanaka, who has been on the disabled list since July 9, has been playing catch with regularity since Aug. 4 and has been encouraged with each step he's taken. Before going on the disabled list, the 25-year-old rookie was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.

Interestingly, because of the kind of injury, Girardi said it's possible Tanaka could progress all the way to pitching for the Yankees without taking another MRI to make sure the slight tear in his elbow ligament is actually healed. Tanaka received a platelet-rich plasma injection in lieu of surgery on July 14.

"With this type of injury, it's either going to work or it's not going to work," Girardi said. "It's not something like you're waiting for the inflammation to go away."

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