ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A little more than two years ago, Masahiro Tanaka outpitched a then-at-the-height-of-his-powers Chris Sale at Fenway Park.
“We’re comfortable with him facing anybody,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said after Tanaka beat Sale and the Red Sox, 3-0, on April 27, 2017, with a three-hitter.
A similar scenario played out Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field. Tanaka, an afterthought entering the day against reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, outperformed the lefthander in the Yankees' 7-1 victory over the Rays in front of a sellout crowd of 25,025.
The Yankees (24-16), who won despite striking out 17 times, took two of three games to move within a half-game of AL East-leading Tampa Bay (24-15). They are 18-7 since their 6-9 start.
“That’s vintage Masa,” catcher Austin Romine said. “He tends to always step up for us in big games. He’s going against one of the best pitchers in the game and today he went out and just kept putting up zeros.”
Tanaka, 0-2 with a 5.63 ERA in his previous three starts, allowed one run and five hits in seven innings. He walked none and struck out seven in improving to 3-3 with a 3.44 ERA.
“You try to kind of keep up with him,” Tanaka said through his translator, referring to Snell, who struck out 12 in 5 2/3 innings. “Obviously, he’s one of the best pitchers in the league right now, so you just want to match up, and I felt I was able to do a pretty good job today.”
The series had its share of oddities, including the Yankees’ winning rally Friday night being sparked when Gary Sanchez got a hit on a ball that clanked off one of the overhanging catwalks and a 43-minute delay in the top of the ninth inning Sunday when the stadium lights went off line with the count 0-and-1 on Thairo Estrada.
When the game resumed, Estrada homered to right on an 0-and-2 pitch for a 4-1 lead. Gio Urshela’s two-run double with the bases loaded and Brett Gardner’s sacrifice fly made it 7-1.
Entering the ninth, Urshela had struck out four times and Estrada had fanned three times.
Aaron Boone left himself open to second-guessing by pulling Tanaka after seven innings and 73 pitches, only four in the seventh. With runners on second and third and one out in the eighth, Zack Britton struck out Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz to preserve the 3-1 lead.
“Masa went out and set the tone for us and we did enough against Snell, who was pretty tough,” Boone said.
Especially early. Snell (3-4, 3.56) came out with no-hit stuff, throwing three perfect innings and striking out 10 through four innings. But after he retired the first two batters in the fifth, Romine doubled to left-center, Mike Tauchman lined an RBI double off the top of the centerfield wall and DJ LeMahieu slashed an RBI single to right to give Tanaka a 2-0 lead. That improved LeMahieu to 16-for-33 with runners in scoring position.
Tanaka retired the Rays on only seven pitches in the bottom of the inning. “Obviously, I was pumped up,” he said. “But I think the important part for me was to go out there after that inning and shut them down.”
Tanaka, with what Romine said was his best splitter of the season, retired 12 straight after Avisail Garcia’s one-out single in the second. The streak was emphatically ended by Austin Meadows with one out in the sixth when he launched a 2-and-2 slider to center for his eighth homer to make it 2-1.
Luke Voit led off the eighth with a walk against Ryne Stanek and scored on a two-out wild pitch to make it 3-1.
Shortly thereafter, the lights went out. And when Tropicana's power came back on in the ninth, so did the Yankees'.