SAN DIEGO – The thought, Masahiro Tanaka said here late Wednesday night, did not "cross my mind."
Not while warming up in the bullpen before his start in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Rays. Nor after the 8-4 loss that pushed the Yankees to the edge of playoff elimination.
That Wednesday night’s outing might have been the last of his career with the Yankees.
"It doesn’t cross my mind even right now," Tanaka said a few minutes after the game via Zoom.
But it is a thought that had crossed the righthander’s mind before.
It happened as Tanaka threw in the bullpen before his final regular season start Sept. 23 in Buffalo against the Blue Jays.
"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 that night.
Those thoughts didn’t impact his tough outing, one in which he allowed five runs (three earned) and eight hits over four innings-plus. Rather, Tanaka was acknowledging something not exactly hiding in plain sight: the 31-year-old, signed to a seven-year, $155 million deal before the 2014 season, is a free agent at season’s end.
"It was a tough season to say the least," Tanaka said after the regular season. "It was a short season with the pandemic and for me, this was the last season of my contract with the Yankees. It’s kind of frustrating to have to end the last regular season this way."
The postseason, potentially, too.
While Tanaka never developed into the No. 1 starter the Yankees envisioned, he nonetheless more than fulfilled his contract to the franchise’s liking.
In his time in pinstripes, Tanaka was among the most durable – and successful – pitchers in the American League, going 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA in 174 games (173 starts). That includes 2020, a season in which Tanaka went 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA, an impressive performance considering the pitcher had the start of his season delayed after suffering a concussion after taking a line drive off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton during a live BP session July 4.
Tanaka’s 991 strikeouts rank 13th on the Yankees’ all-time list and are the most by any Yankee through his first 174 games and the second-most by a Yankees pitcher through his first seven major league seasons, trailing only Andy Pettitte, who had 998 strikeouts.
And, like Pettitte, Tanaka has generally raised his level in the postseason, this one, of course, being an exception.
Entering these playoffs – in which Tanaka has gone 0-1 with a 12.38 ERA in two starts – he was 5-3 with a 1.74 ERA in eight postseason outings.
"I think Masa is able to really hyper focus,’’ Aaron Boone said earlier this postseason of Tanaka’s "clutch" gene when it comes to performing on the sport’s biggest stage. "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.’’
Though Tanaka mentioning his expiring contract a few times has been interpreted by some as him paving the way for a farewell – as well as the pitcher’s social media post at the end of the regular season that appeared nostalgic in nature – that is not necessarily the case.
The Yankees, starting at the top with the Steinbrenner family, could not think higher of Tanaka who, in addition to consistent production, has steadily emerged as a revered clubhouse presence among his teammates.
And all indications are the feelings are mutual. Tanaka, for example, had an opt out in his contract he could have triggered after 2017 but did not.
There’s also the realities of 2020, the primary one being this when it comes to free agency this winter: With all 30 clubs seeing a significant decrease in revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no telling what the free-agent market this winter will look like. But the kind of bidding war that otherwise might have occurred in the marketplace for Tanaka’s services isn’t likely.
"I really prioritized what I felt inside," Tanaka said in spring training 2018 in explaining the decision not to opt out. "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."