For some, the sight of Masahiro Tanaka on the Yankee Stadium mound on Saturday night elicited a feeling of relief. For even more, it brought feelings of inspiration and confidence.
Less than a month earlier — on July 4, the date of the Yankees' first workout of Spring Training II — Tanaka lay on that same mound in pain after being struck on the right side of the head by Giancarlo Stanton's 112-mph line drive. In that moment, manager Aaron Boone and the righthander’s Yankees teammates were more concerned about his health than if he would pitch again.
Tanaka progressed through concussion protocols smoothly and was able to begin working his way back. Just four weeks after suffering a potentially devastating turn of events, the Yankees had the services of one of their best pitchers after he missed only one turn through the rotation. As good as the Yankees have been, Tanaka’s return almost certainly will make them better.
“I’m so thankful to have gotten him back without missing any more time than he did, and I know he's excited to get back on the mound,” Brett Gardner said Saturday before Tanaka's 2020 debut — one in which he was given a 5-0 lead after two innings on Aaron Judge's fourth homer in as many games and Gio Urshela's grand slam. “He's a guy that we love playing behind and is a big part of what we do here.”
“That happens in your first live BP? From an injury standpoint, obviously it can set you back,” Boone said in a pregame Zoom news conference. “But from the psychological standpoint, [it] can set you back [too].
“It's certainly an accomplishment to get back here, but also, any time a line drive off the bat as hard as it came right back at the pitcher, as scary as that can be and as tenuous as that can be sometimes, there's obviously some good fortune there as well,” Boone added.
Tanaka planned to wear a protective insert on the right side of his cap, something he experimented with while working out at the team’s alternate site in Scranton.
“A trainer recommended it to me if I wanted to try this on, and I was on board with that,” Tanaka said Friday through an interpreter. “It actually turned out that it didn't bother me at all. You kind of forget that that's even in there, so that's when I thought that this may work. It gives me peace of mind.”
Tanaka not only has been one of the Yankees' most consistent players since his arrival in 2014 but also has thrived on the big stage that the Yankees would like to dominate in this pandemic-shortened season. Signing Gerrit Cole in free agency may have been the big move by the Yankees as they attempt to make that last step to winning a World Series, but Tanaka is very much a part of the blueprint for success. He is 5-3 with a 1.76 ERA in eight postseason starts.
Seeing Stanton's line drive strike Tanaka’s head gave all of his teammates pause.
“That's just a very scary moment. I've seen that kind of thing happen a few times over my career, and every time it happens, you just stop and think about how fortunate we are to play this game that we love and how we shouldn't take things for granted,” Gardner said. “I think the thing with the ball that Masahiro got hit by? It was just as much who hit it and how hard it was. Most guys don't hit the ball that hard. . . . As soon as it happens, you just kind of stop and say a prayer and just hope that he’s going to be OK.”
However, it wasn’t long afterward that Boone began to think Tanaka not only would come through all right but again be the pitching weapon he has been.
““I would say I was very optimistic from the start, but treading cautiously, just knowing the nature of the injury,” Boone said. “It's the nature of head injuries and things like that. They still need to progress daily and [you] continue to pass hurdles as you up the strenuous work and up the cardio and the heart rate that you're doing. So I was encouraged the whole way because he was responding well to everything put in front of him as we kind of gradually built him up.”
Tanaka’s endurance was behind that of the other Yankees starters because he had to recover from the head injury. Boone said that endurance now will be built up in major league starts, but he is ready.
“[Tanaka’s] a really good competitor,” Boone said. "He's shown that his entire career.”