TAMPA, Fla. — Saying Masahiro Tanaka looked in midseason form Saturday afternoon doesn’t quite capture it.
After all, it depends on which season you’re talking about, even though each of the previous three for Tanaka has been pretty good.
Saying he looked like the Tanaka of his first 14 big-league starts?
Yes, that about does it.
Dominating the Tigers from the first pitch, Tanaka, who went 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA in his first 14 career starts in 2014, struck out the first six hitters he faced Saturday. He wound up striking out seven in four perfect innings in the Yankees’ 7-1 victory over Detroit at Steinbrenner Field.
“I don’t know much more he could have done,” Joe Girardi said. “Seemed like everything was working for him today. Fastball in to lefties, his curveball, his split. Really, really good.”
Now for the obligatory interjection: Spring training outings for established veterans are mostly meaningless, becoming significant only if an injury of some kind is suffered.
Still, the 28-year-old Tanaka is the unquestioned ace of a Yankees rotation filled with question marks. The fact that he’s dominated as he has — he hasn’t allowed a run or a walk in nine total innings and has struck out 13 — certainly beats the alternative from the Yankees’ perspective.
After all, for the Yankees to have any chance to contend for a playoff spot this season, Tanaka must duplicate or even surpass what he did last year, when he went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA.
“He’s vital for our staff,” Girardi said. “He expects a lot of himself.”
Tanaka, who said he’s been “very satisfied,” believes improving on his 2016 season is realistic.
“You want to make it into a reality,” he said through his translator. “As a player, you always want to become better, so yes [it’s realistic].”
Tanaka commanded his full arsenal Saturday, flummoxing the Tigers with his fastball, splitter, curveball, slider and cutter. He was most pleased, he said, with the movement on his two-seam fastball.
Greg Bird said all of the pitches looked good to him. “Man, I thought he looked amazing,” he said.
Between innings, Bird made a quick trip into the clubhouse and ran into CC Sabathia. “I came in and CC said something, and I said [yes], it was that nasty,” Bird said.
Bird said Gary Sanchez’s glove movement on some swings and misses that weren’t close told him all he needed to know. “The ball had to be moving,’’ he said, “and it had to be moving late.”
For his part, Tanaka wasn’t getting too carried away because of the competition. The Tigers hardly brought an “A” lineup to Steinbrenner Field, with only Anthony Gose and Justin Upton among the regulars.
Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, for example, are playing in the World Baseball Classic.
“Obviously, you want the results, but you can’t just look at that,” Tanaka said. “Not to downgrade anybody, but a lot of the good players are playing in the WBC, so the batters that you’re facing might be a little bit different too. In that regard, it wouldn’t be safe to just look at results.”
Tanaka, who can opt out of his seven-year, $155-million deal after this season, has gotten mostly good results as a Yankee, going 39-16 with a 3.12 ERA.
He said upon reporting for camp in early February that his goal for this season is recording between 220 and 230 innings, what many aces are able to do.
Tanaka pitched 199 2⁄3 innings last season, his major-league career high.
“Each year he’s [gone] up,” Girardi said of Tanaka’s inning totals. “So I don’t see why he can’t break that 200-inning plateau, get through that and see where it ends up.”