Masahiro Tanaka looked like Masahiro Tanaka.
That wouldn’t have meant a whole lot before all of this — before a pandemic-shortened season, before he was drilled in the head during summer camp, before the Yankees’ rotation faltered early on — but it certainly meant enough on Friday night in his start against the Rays.
For a pitcher who’s being slowly stretched out after his injury and who’s integral to a rotation that has stumbled since the beginning of the season, his performance felt more like a promise.
Aaron Boone said as much even before the game. The rotation, outside Gerrit Cole, has underperformed, but “I think there are some unique circumstances,” Boone said, “especially with Masa.
“Hopefully we’ll start to see that improvement this time and the next time through the rotation, because I certainly know our guys are capable.”
That proved true enough as Tanaka mowed down the Rays in the early innings, reintroducing an old delivery that had him starting with his glove above his head and displaying a devastating break on his slider. Despite going only 2 2/3 innings in his only other start this year, he looked no worse for wear, inducing weak contact and retiring his final 13 batters. He allowed a single and no walks in his five innings.
“He’s certainly not built up to where he will be hopefully in another couple starts,” Boone said. “But he’s getting there.”
Tanaka looked as if he were already there on Friday, with splitters and sliders that seemed nearly unhittable mixed in with pinpoint fastballs high in the zone.
Before the game, Boone predicted Tanaka would go three or four innings, but by the end of the fifth, when he struck out Willy Adames swinging, he looked nearly unstoppable.
It was, in all, a huge reversal from that day on July 4 when he was drilled in the right side of the head by Giancarlo Stanton’s 112-mph line drive during the Yankees’ first workout of summer camp. Tanaka walked out under his own power, but his future this season immediately was called into question.
“Any time you see that on a baseball field, and then add a layer that it’s a teammate, that stops you in your tracks and you hope for the best,” Boone said then. “That’s one of those real unfortunate scary moments that happens every now and again in our game.”
Tanaka’s achievement becomes increasingly more important as the Yankees work around starting pitching that has stumbled in the early days. Despite the 9-3 overall record they brought into Friday night, the Yankees’ rotation has been among the worst in baseball with a 5.44 ERA. Entering Friday, their relievers already had pitched 51 2/3 innings, with a 3.31 ERA.
The shortened season allows plenty of leeway, as does the 28-man roster, but it’s still a concern, and one that becomes increasingly more pressing as the Yankees try to establish dominance in the American League.
“It’s something that certainly has to improve,” Boone said. “But I believe that Pax [James Paxton] will get it rolling here and become a stabilizer in our rotation. Obviously, we’re working Masa back. Monty [Jordan Montgomery] had a little bit of a hiccup yesterday working out of a strong opening outing.”
The situation certainly seems less worrisome when you include Masahiro Tanaka looking like Masahiro Tanaka.