TORONTO — Masahiro Tanaka benefited from yet another offensive explosion by his teammates last Monday night at Camden Yards, but he didn’t try to hide his disappointment in himself.
“Having good offense and you not doing your job well enough kind of makes it even more frustrating,” Tanaka said after the win.
He more than did his job Sunday afternoon, and it couldn’t have been better timed.
On a day Yankees bats were quiet, Tanaka turned in one of the better outings of his career, allowing three hits and no walks in eight innings-plus in a 1-0 victory over the Blue Jays in front of 27,790 at Rogers Centre.
“Just what the doctor ordered,” said Aaron Boone, whose taxed bullpen needed a break and got one, other than Aroldis Chapman.
The Yankees (77-41) got their run when Gio Urshela and Brett Gardner hit back-to-back doubles to lead off the fifth. They had five hits to Toronto's four, including two by Urshela, who has 18 extra-base hits in his last 17 games.
But the day almost entirely was about Tanaka — who had a 10.23 ERA in his previous seven starts — and Chapman, who earned his 31st save in 36 chances but needed 27 pitches to get through three batters in a dramatic ninth inning. He survived an epic 13-pitch battle with rookie slugger Vlad Guerrero Jr., who hit into a 6-4-3 double play, before allowing a line-drive single by rookie Bo Bichette to cap an eight-pitch at-bat and striking out rookie Cavan Biggio on a 3-and-2 slider to end it.
Tanaka (8-6, 4.64) shoved his recent struggles to the back burner. “He was great today,” Chapman said through his translator before smiling. “I think he had a really good chance at pitching a shutout, but he wasn’t allowed to.”
Tanaka got ahead of Brandon Drury 0-and-2 to start the ninth but hung a slider that Drury grounded through the left side for a single. With Guerrero coming to the plate as a pinch hitter, Boone went to Chapman, and one of the best at-bats of the season commenced — one that featured seven foul balls as the power pitcher and the power hitter dueled.
Guerrero entered the game hitting .388 with five homers and 25 RBIs in his last 20 games. After Chapman got ahead 0-and-2 with a pair of high fastballs that Guerrero swung through with powerful cuts, he hung a 1-and-2 slider that Guerrero crushed — but the ball hooked foul and clanged off the facing of the upper deck in left.
The battle raged until the 13th pitch, a 100-mph fastball. Guerrero bounced it to Gleyber Torres, and DJ LeMahieu made a nice turn at second base to get two quick outs.
“They were just battling, those two guys … one of their better hitters and our closer going after it,” catcher Austin Romine said. “It was kind of enjoyable to see, especially when he grounded into a double play; that’s a good way to end it for us. But they were battling. It was fun to be a part of it.”
Through his translator, Chapman called it “a great at-bat.”
“He made me work,” he said. “Pitched him inside, threw sliders, threw two-seamers and [couldn’t get him]. Any time you get a double play when you need it is going to feel great.”
Justin Smoak’s single to start the eighth ended a streak of 17 straight retired by Tanaka, but he got Derek Fisher to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Tanaka has been inconsistent most of the season with his splitter, a devastating pitch when it’s on. On Sunday, while not abandoning the pitch, he focused far more on his slider.
The strategy was successful as he held down an offense that had homered in 15 straight games and had hit 99 homers since June 16, one behind the Yankees for most in the majors in that stretch.
“I didn’t plan on throwing a lot of sliders going into the game. It was more of having a good feel for it,” Tanaka said through his translator. “And also looking at the hitters, seeing what they’re trying to do and then do something that keeps them off balance.”
Romine felt Tanaka had more than his slider going. “When he’s got all of his pitches working [like today],'' he said, "those are the kind of outings that we get from him.”