CLEARWATER, Fla. — Joe Girardi left no doubt about Masahiro Tanaka’s standing in the rotation.
“The idea is he’s our No. 1 starter,” Girardi said Sunday morning. “But you have to see how he does, where he is physically.”
A few hours later, the righthander made his spring training debut against the Phillies, pitching two scoreless innings in a 6-5 loss at Bright House Field. Tanaka, all but certain to be the Opening Day starter if healthy, allowed two hits and a walk and struck out two. He threw 31 pitches, 20 for strikes.
“Pretty satisfied,” he said through his translator.
Tanaka had a bone spur removed from his pitching elbow during the offseason and has been handled cautiously since.
“I think any time a guy comes off an injury, even though we thought he’d be ready, it’s always good to see him out there,” Girardi said afterward. “It just kind of makes you feel better about the situation.”
Tanaka pitched a perfect first, striking out Odubel Herrera with an 86-mph splitter to end the eight-pitch inning.
He had a more difficult time during a 23-pitch second, allowing a leadoff single to Maikel Franco and leaving a 3-and-1 fastball up to Brock Stassi, who singled. But Rob Refsnyder, making his first start at third, made a nice stop of Carlos Ruiz’s smash to start a 5-4-3 double play. Tanaka walked Cedric Hunter but struck out David Lough with a slider.
“I was missing my spots here and there,” Tanaka said. “I think as we go deeper into [spring training], that should become better.”
Scouts had Tanaka’s fastball at 87-88 mph in the first inning, and it increased to 90-91 in the second.
“Threw two really good splitters at 85 and 86,” one scout said. “Thought he was pretty good. His feel for pitching, command and control were excellent. Slider was really good also. Pitched to contact well.”
Before the game, Girardi said his only concern is that Tanaka “feels good” the day after his starts. It’s the obvious concern, because he missed a significant part of 2014 with a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and had two stints on the disabled list last season. He had right wrist tendinitis and a strained right forearm in July and a hamstring strain in September.
In October, he had surgery to remove the bone spur. The problem dates to his career in Japan, and the Yankees were aware of it when they signed him. It was asymptomatic until it started causing periodic discomfort last season, when he went 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA.
Only sporadically has he been the pitcher he was in his first 14 starts in 2014, when he was 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA. But with his elbow feeling good, Tanaka said: “Yes, I do feel I can get back to that form.”
Notes & quotes: Refsnyder made two good stops on hard grounders and went 1-for-1 with a walk and two stolen bases. “It feels pretty natural,” the second-base prospect said of playing third. “I’m trying to get reps in anywhere. Wherever Joe needs me.” . . . New second baseman Starlin Castro went 1-for-3 and is 3-for-9 overall . . . Top prospect Jorge Mateo, a shortstop, went 1-for-1 and is 3-for-6 in three games.