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Masahiro Tanaka, 10 years removed from his Yankees debut, has fond memories of his days with the club

Masahiro Tanaka during Yankees spring training in Tampa on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It has been nearly four years since Masahiro Tanaka last threw a pitch for the Yankees. His big-league debut with them now is a full 10 years in the rearview mirror.

Yet, Tanaka says today, his mind occasionally wanders.

“I still think back about my time with the Yankees,” he told Newsday during a recent Zoom interview,  the first one he has granted to an outlet in the United States since going back to Japan.

In some of those moments, Tanaka, wearing his crisp home pinstriped No. 19 uniform, is back on the Yankee Stadium mound, a slab of rubber he owned more often than not in his seven years with the club.

A little more than  10 years before the Dodgers' Yoshinobu Yamamoto — a free agent this past offseason whom the Yankees pursued harder than any other Japanese pitcher since Tanaka — allowed two hits in seven shutout innings at Yankee Stadium on Friday night, Tanaka began what would be an exceptional career with the Yankees.

A game Tanaka said he continues to have a strong “impression about” is Game 3 of the 2017 Division Series against Cleveland.

“We were back against the wall,” Tanaka said through his interpreter, Eriko Takehama of Sankei Sports News. “They [Cleveland] already won the first two games, [but] I was able to pitch really well that game.”

Tanaka threw seven scoreless innings on that electric Oct. 8 night at the Stadium. Those efforts, and  Greg Bird's seventh-inning homer off elite lefthanded reliever Andrew Miller, paved the way to a 1-0 victory, the first of three straight Yankees wins in a comeback series triumph.

The performance not only deepened Tanaka’s already solid standing as a Yankees fan favorite -— a place secured with the otherworldly start to his career in pinstripes in 2014 — but Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS also served as an early foundational block for his “big-game pitcher” reputation.

Tanaka went 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.13 WHIP for the Yankees from 2014-20. He was even better in the postseason, posting a 3.33 ERA in 10 starts.

“We could rely the [expletive] out of him in the postseason,” general manager Brian Cashman said last week. “He more than honored that [contract] with his performance. He checked all the boxes.”

The Yankees invested what they did in Tanaka — an original seven-year, $155 million contract — because they believed he could honor it.

But those numbers don’t fully encapsulate Tanaka’s Yankees career. Teammates vividly remember their time with him, not only because of his considerable skills on the mound — Mark Teixeira to this day recalls how “silly” Tanaka’s famed splitter consistently made “really good” major-leaguers look — but also because of what he brought to the clubhouse.

It is not a coincidence that the franchise’s last two captains, Derek Jeter and Aaron Judge, rate Tanaka among their “favorite” all-time teammates.

 “He was a competitor,'' Jeter, who retired after the 2014 season, told Newsday. "He went out there every fifth day, you could count on him, never made excuses . . . He didn’t shy away from having the ball. In big moments, he wanted to be out there. You can tell a lot by watching someone when they were pitching in big games to see if their demeanor changed. His demeanor was basically the same.”.

Tanaka's No. 19 jersey still can be found without too much effort at Yankees games, one representation of his forever standing among the fan base.

While it is curious to hear Tanaka start an answer to a question about his time in the Bronx by saying, “I wouldn’t say I was super-successful during my tenure with the Yankees,” the comment actually is unsurprising, given how unimpressed with himself Tanaka generally seemed to be during his career. It provides some insight into the considerable success he did have and why he is so fondly remembered.

There are always questions when it comes to players, no matter how accomplished, who attempt to play Major League Baseball for the first time. When it comes to pitchers from Japan, those questions usually stem from the adjustments to the slightly larger baseball used in the majors as well as the every-five-days routine for starters, compared to the every-sixth-day or every-seventh-day routine in Japan.

There also is the not-so-small matter of joining an unfamiliar clubhouse while not speaking English, or speaking very little of it.

Tanaka, just 25 years old in 2014, was coming off a season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles  in which he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA.

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees looks on during his introductory press...

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees looks on during his introductory press conference at Yankee Stadium on Feb. 11, 2014. Credit: Getty Images

Armed with those hefty credentials and the “mindset I’m going to be successful” in the major leagues, Tanaka acknowledged at first feeling “overwhelmed” at the prospect of not only being a Yankee but of entering a clubhouse that had “such big names” as Jeter and CC Sabathia.

The presence of the already established Japanese players Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda — whom Tanaka, out of respect for the older player who mentored him, still refers to as “Mr. Kuroda” — did make the transition easier. (Kuroda already was wearing No. 18, the designated “ace” number in Japan, so Tanaka, because of its proximity to 18 and the “look of it,” chose No. 19.)

Tanaka said he was “blessed” to have teammates such as Jeter who went out of their way to make him feel a part of the clubhouse from Day 1..

"I know there was a language barrier there, but I certainly went out of my way to get to know him and tease him and try to make him feel as comfortable and welcome as possible,'' Jeter said. "I really enjoyed my time with him. Unfortunately, it was only a season. He’s one of those guys you wish you had a chance to play with him a little longer.''

As far as on the field, the Yankees believed that Tanaka’s stuff, including a splitter that one Pacific Rim scout at the time called “the best in the world,” would translate.

The Yankees had extensively scouted Tanaka since he was 18 and pitching for Rakuten. Longtime pro scout Jay Darnell, still with the Yankees and recognized by his peers as being among the best at what he does, filed the organization’s first report on him in June 2007.

Darnell, at Koshien Stadium for a game between visiting Rakuten and Hanshin, was there primarily to scout Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa, but he couldn’t help but notice the Golden Eagles’ starter.

Darnell noted that Tanaka “kept a calm demeanor on the mound in front of 40,000 opposing fans” and the pitcher having a “very advanced feel for command and control at an early age.” Darnell projected Tanaka as “a middle-of-the-rotation major-league starter” with the “ceiling to exceed.” He added: “Strong interest in acquiring.”

The Yankees, who in the ensuing years would send a phalanx of evaluators to Japan to see Tanaka, prudently still had questions in February 2014.

They began to be answered in Tanaka’s first spring training bullpen session.

“The split in person was better than it looked watching tape of it,” Larry Rothschild, the club’s pitching coach from 2011-19, said from his home in Tampa. “It was really impressive. [Brian] McCann caught his first bullpen and said, ‘That split is something else.’ ”

Joe Girardi, the Yankees' manager from 2008-17, said: “It’s one thing to watch a pitcher in Japan, but you want to see it firsthand in front of your eyes. You could just see it. I remember saying, ‘This is going to play. This is going to work.’ ”

Few had an idea about just how well it would.

Tanaka had a terrific first spring training, going 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA, striking out 26 and walking three in 21 innings. But as anyone in the game will tell you, spring training is spring training. How would his stuff play when the lights came on for real?

Said Jeter: “I don’t think there were any hiccups for him. There was no adjustments period. He seemed to pick up how he was pitching in Japan. He had played with Andruw Jones in Japan. I remember talking to Andruw right after the Yankees signed him. He said, ‘You’re going to love him. He deals.’ ”

Melky Cabrera homered on the fifth pitch of Tanaka's big-league debut in Toronto on April 4, 2014,  and through two innings, Tanaka had given up three runs (two earned). He allowed nothing else in the final five innings and ended up striking out eight and not walking a batter.

“It seemed like he could throw any pitch at any time,” then-Blue Jays manager and current Mets bench coach John Gibbons said. “And the split . . . was just different.”

That pitch would be front and center in a remarkable run.

Through his first 14 starts, Tanaka was 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. In the final two starts of that stretch — June 11 in Seattle and June 17 against the Blue Jays — he struck out 21 in 15 innings.

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the Yankees looks on from the dugout...

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the Yankees looks on from the dugout prior to playing against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on May 28, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Credit: Getty Images

Current Astros manager Joe Espada, who was Girardi’s bench coach from 2015-17 after serving as a member of the Yankees’ pro scouting department in 2014, characterized the start of Tanaka’s career as “one of the best two months I’ve ever seen a pitcher perform at the major-league level.”

“I just remember the splitter,” said Marcus Stroman, a 23-year-old rookie in the Toronto dugout for the June 17 game. “The depth on it, the hitters chasing it [in the dirt]. Just the movement.”

David Wright, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout on May 14, 2014, at Citi Field when Tanaka threw a three-hitter in a 4-0 win over the Mets, recalled him being “incredibly difficult” to prepare for.

“He had an assortment of pitches that he felt comfortable throwing in any count or situation,” Wright said. “He could throw his fastball by you or keep you off-balance with his off-speed pitches. It also seemed like he loved to compete and had a bulldog-type mentality on the mound.”

Manny Machado, then a 21-year-old with the Orioles, first faced Tanaka on June 22 of that season.

“I mean, his splitter was just unhittable at times,” Machado, now with the Padres, said late last month during the Yankees’ visit to San Diego. “He was a tough at-bat. You kind of had to like pick and choose because he could throw strikes at any count. He could be down 2-and-0 and he’d throw his splitter for the first strike. You just shake your head.”

“Tanaka’s splitter was so good,” said Teixeira, a three-time All-Star. “All-Star hitters were swinging and missing over and over and over again. To me, that was amazing.”

Tanaka’s start caught the eye of many.

Gerrit Cole, 23 years old in 2014 and in his second major-league season with the Pirates, grew up a Yankees fan, and even at that age, he had an understanding of the pressures Tanaka faced that first year.

“I had, obviously, a great respect for it then; I have a new appreciation for it now, having been here,” Cole said. “To get off on that kind of roll, you just knew a.) this guy’s really good and b.) he’s probably really good in big games.”

Judge, drafted in 2013 and playing for Class A Tampa in the Florida State League in 2014, noticed, too.

“I was excited, and it made me understand why we got him,” Judge said. “Seeing how he started off, I was like, ‘That’s the reason why he’s a Yankee. They go after the best.’ And he certainly was the best.”

Tanaka, with a smile, said of the start: “It was, I guess, too good to be true.”

Beginning June 22 against Baltimore, he lost three of his next four starts. With his elbow not feeling quite right in his recovery between starts, he went for testing after a loss in Cleveland on July 8 and was diagnosed with a small UCL tear.

Tanaka was evaluated by three orthopedic surgeons — Yankees team physician Chris Ahmad, Mets team doctor David Altchek and Dodgers team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache. Each recommended the same approach: no surgery, a platelet-rich plasma injection and roughly six weeks of rest and rehab.

Tanaka returned in September and made two starts — one good (one run in 5 1 /3 innings vs. Toronto), and one bad (seven runs in 1 2/3 innings at Boston) — to finish the season  13-5 with a 2.77 ERA.

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the Yankees pitches against the Boston...

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the Yankees pitches against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning during a game at Fenway Park on September 27, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Getty Images

Though Tanaka never fully recaptured the magic of his first 14 career starts, plenty of highlights were still to come, including a second All-Star bid in 2019 and the bulk of his postseason success (he posted a 1.38 ERA in two ALCS starts against Houston in ’17, for instance).

In his final six seasons, Tanaka went 65-41 with a 3.88 ERA, overall impressive numbers in the always rugged AL East.

“It felt like he was not the same,” Cashman said. “Still a really high-end starting pitcher regardless, but maybe some of his power got zapped for whatever reason.”

Though it remains one of the great “what-ifs” in recent franchise history, Tanaka, who remembered being “surprised” at the diagnosis of having a tear, has never looked back with regret.

“People even ask me now, but I was never told I should do the surgery,” Tanaka said. “I did feel a little bit different [with my pitches], but that was because I didn’t really throw for two months. The second season I felt fine and the same.”

After the 60-game COVID-19 season in 2020, Tanaka’s contract expired. Although the Yankees had some interest in bringing him back, he was not an offseason priority. In a holding pattern, he had a sizable offer from another big-league team  that he declined to name, but in his mind, he either would be pitching for the Yankees in 2021 or back in Japan with Rakuten. He felt immense loyalty to the Golden Eagles and wanted to rejoin them “when I’m still able to pitch well.”

Tanaka posted a 3.01 ERA in 2021 and a 3.31 ERA in ’22. That increased to 4.91 last season. This year Tanaka, 35, has been recovering from the bone spur removal surgery he had last October, a cleanup procedure similar to the one he had with the Yankees in 2015 and ’19.

Though his preference was to continue with the Yankees, Tanaka, who still returns to the U.S. now and again, stressed that he views his time in New York with only positive feelings.

He closely followed Judge’s 62-homer season in ’2022 and still is in occasional contact with Cole, who in his first Yankees spring training news conference in 2020 said Tanaka was a pitcher he looked forward to “learning from.”

“My heart is always with the Yankees and I never want to say anything negative about the Yankees,” Tanaka said. “I’m still rooting for the Yankees. I’m still the Yankees' biggest fan. It was such an honor for me to play for the Yankees for seven years.”

TANAKA WITH YANKS

Year   W-L      ERA    G     SHO    IP           K       WHIP

2014  13-5      2.77    20      1       136.1     141    1.056

2015  12-7      3.51    24      0       154.0     130    0.994

2016  14-4      3.07    31      0       199.2     165    1.077

2017  13-12    4.74    30      1       178.1     194    1.239

2018  12-6      3.75    27       1      156.0     159    1.128

2019  11-9      4.45    32       1      182.0     149    1.242

2020   3-3       3.56    10        0      48.0       44    1.167

TOT.  78-46     3.74    174     4      1,054.1   991 1.130

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