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Has Masahiro Tanaka made his last regular-season start for Yankees?

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka watches the game

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka watches the game from the stands during the second inning of a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees at Fenway Park in Boston on Sept. 18, 2020. Credit: CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

BUFFALO – While Masahiro Tanaka warmed up before Wednesday night’s start here against the Blue Jays – the righthander’s last regular-season start of 2020 – his primary focus, of course, was effectively navigating a potent Toronto lineup.

But he couldn’t help another thought flashing through his mind.

"I realized that this is the last start of the regular season for me, which means it would be the last start [in] my seven-year contract with the Yankees," Tanaka said through his interpreter after taking the loss in the Yankees’ 14-1 defeat Wednesday night.

That had no impact on his rough outing, one in which he allowed five runs (three earned) and eight hits over four innings in which Tanaka’s defense consistently let him down and his offense was nearly as bad.

"I did have that thought going into the game, but it wasn’t like I was thinking about it all the time," said Tanaka, whose 2020 season was slightly delayed after he took a 112-mph line drive off his head from the bat of Giancarlo Stanton the first day of Spring Training II on July 4.

Instead, it was simply an acknowledgement of the obvious: that Tanaka, 31, completing the final year of the seven-year, $155 million deal he signed before the 2014 season, just might have been making his last regular-season start as a Yankee.

"It was a tough season to say the least," said Tanaka, who will get the ball Wednesday in Game 2 of the best-of-three wild-card round. "It was a short season with the pandemic and for me, this was the last season of my seven-year contract with the Yankees. It’s kind of frustrating to have to end the last regular season this way."

Though that was interpreted in some circles as a goodbye of sorts, it should not necessarily be viewed that way. Nor should Tanaka’s social media post later Wednesday night that seemed to be taking a nostalgic look back at his time in pinstripes.

Because it must be kept in mind the Yankees, starting with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, could not be happier with their investment from seven years ago. Both in terms of production – Tanaka is 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA in his seven seasons, counting 2020 in which he went 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA in 10 starts – and presence on the team.

Tanaka is among the most respected players in the clubhouse, with Gerrit Cole himself saying shortly after arriving for his first spring training with the Yankees in mid-February that the Japanese pitcher was one of the new teammates he was most looking forward to talking with and learning from.

And the warm feelings, from all accounts, appear to be mutual. Tanaka, for instance, had an opt out in his contract he could have exercised after the 2017 season, but he did not.

"I really prioritized what I felt inside," Tanaka said in spring training 2018 in explaining his choice. "I’m sure there were possibilities, but the important thing for me was to follow what my heart was saying, and that’s what I did."

In a typical offseason Tanaka, among the most durable starters in the American League since he made his debut in 2014 and a proven postseason performer (5-3 with a 1.76 ERA in eight October starts), would surely be a heavily sought-after free agent. But with revenues significantly down for every team because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s anyone’s guess how spending will proceed this winter. Regardless, all indications are the Yankees and Tanaka, if nothing else, will have serious talks about a continuation..

"I think Masa is able to really hyper focus,’’ Aaron Boone said Wednesday of Tanaka’s "clutch" gene in the biggest games. "I think he likes when there’s more on the line and he’s shown it over the years, it seems, like the bigger the game, he’s usually at his best. I’m glad we’ve got him.’’

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