Masahiro Tanaka took the next step toward returning to a major-league mound Saturday morning at Yankee Stadium.
The righthander, on the disabled list since July 9 with a slight tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, threw a 35-pitch simulated game, facing Zelous Wheeler and Brendan Ryan.
After the session, Tanaka said his elbow felt fine. He said he was a "little bit rusty" throwing his splitter, but expressed no concern that the pitch won't continue to work as well as it had before the injury once he returns.
"I felt I wasn't able to hit my spot as much as I wanted to," Tanaka said through his translator. "There were some good balls that I was able to throw. It was a good step. I want to keep moving forward."
Before the injury, Tanaka was among the brightest spots of the season for the Yankees. He was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA and 135 strikeouts.
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said he was looking to see where Tanaka's stamina and arm strength were at this point. Both passed the eye test for the pitching coach, who stood behind Tanaka on the infield grass during the session.
"I thought it was good, for the time off he's had," Rothschild said of Tanaka's stamina. "It wasn't where it was before he got hurt, but I didn't expect it to be. This is another step in a progression, so we'll just keep going with it."
Rothschild added that he thought Tanaka looked "sharp."
"As he pitches and gets on the mound more, he's going to feel sharper and get more comfortable," Rothschild said. "It's a process. As long as he feels good afterward and comes in tomorrow and feels good, those are good steps . . . His splitter will be fine. That's about the last of my concerns right now."
As sharp as Tanaka may have looked, the individual pitch performance was secondary for manager Joe Girardi. At this point, it's more about health than anything else, he said.
"The big thing is that he doesn't have pain and that the ball's coming out OK," Girardi said. "The guys were talking about how hard it was to pick up the split and the arm motion. It's a good sign because that means he's not babying it. That's encouraging."
Wheeler said he didn't see much of a difference between Saturday and when he faced Tanaka early in spring training.
"Everything looked normal. I think he threw all the pitches that he has," Wheeler said. "It felt like a spring training vibe. But it's live BP. This is totally different from the game. To me, he looked great. We'll see how he feels."
And that seemed to be the prevailing thought from Rothschild and Girardi, not committing to any further plans on where Tanaka will progress to next.
"We'll talk about it, what we think the next step is," Girardi said.
Added Rothschild: "I will not do timetables for rehab."
One challenge facing the Yankees is the need for Tanaka to make a rehab start. With minor-league seasons ending after Labor Day weekend, time for Tanaka to make a short trip down is running out.
"He's going to have to be able to make a rehab start," Girardi said. "I'm not exactly sure how we're going to be able to do it as we build him up because you're going to run out of minor-league season. We'll be creative enough to do whatever we have to do to get him ready."