The first four Mariners to face Masahiro Tanaka on Sunday hit the ball hard. It didn’t just travel far and fast, but the crack of the bat hung in the air a moment longer than usual.
In this most confounding season for the Yankees righthander, such sights and sounds in the first inning often have forecast something bad.
Not this time.
The first went for a long flyout, and the next two were rockets for singles. Then Nelson Cruz laced a run-scoring double to left. And there, with two men in scoring position, Tanaka found his better self. He struck out Kyle Seager on a splitter and got Mitch Haniger on a soft fly ball to end the inning.
Tanaka remained his better self for the rest of his 100th major-league start, going seven innings in a 10-1 win at the Stadium. He allowed six hits and a walk, struck out 10 and evened his record at 10-10. His ERA continued to fall, to 4.69.
“It took him a couple hitters to get his stuff going,’’ Joe Girardi said. “You look at three or four of the first balls that were hit, they were hit hard. But after that, there wasn’t a ton that were hit hard. He did a nice job.”
“It could have been worse, the first inning,” Tanaka said through a translator. “I think I was just able to limit the damage and, because of me being able to do that, it led to quicker outs starting in the second inning.”
The six runs the Yankees scored in the first, aided by five errors, didn’t hurt, either.
Tanaka is trending upward, with a 5-3 record and a 2.92 ERA in his last 11 starts, although he did spend 10 days on the disabled list after complaining of fatigue and shoulder soreness Aug. 9 in Toronto. This was his second outing since coming back — both wins. “I feel strong,’’ he said. “Today I think it was even better than the last outing.”
A stingier, more reliable Tanaka is exactly what the Yankees need in their quest for the postseason. “It was great to see him throwing that way again,” Chase Headley said. “We need that.”
After those first four hitters, Tanaka’s pitches showed the great movement they’re known for. His splitter dived. His slider had bite. His cutter had late movement.
“He just got everything going,” Girardi said. “A lot of pitchers, the first inning it takes them a little time to get going. It took him a little time. Then he did a really good job of bearing down.”
In 25 starts this season, Tanaka has allowed 21 first-inning runs. “It could be hard,’’ he said. “You start out with no outs and you go in there and you’re the one that creates that first out — creates the game — so there are some hard aspects to it.”
Striking out Seager with those two runners in scoring position made things a little easier.
“You’re thinking about that,” Tanaka said. “That’s the best-case scenario.”