And the wins just keep on coming.
The Yankees were sure to be formidable whenever the 2020 baseball season finally got underway, and now that it has, they are showing they were worthy of the hype.
They rode the power hitting of Gio Urshela and Aaron Judge and their enormous pitching depth to a 5-2 win over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, extending their winning streak to five games.
But they also became an even better team than they have been with the return of Masahiro Tanaka from the injured list. Less than one month after the frightening sight of Tanaka taking a 112-mph liner by Giancarlo Stanton off the right side of his head during the Yankees’ first workout on July 4, one of the Yankees’ most dependable pitchers looked good in his first action.
“You’re getting a frontline starting pitcher into the mix,” manager Aaron Boone said after the Yankees moved to 6-1. “I mean, any time you get a really good starter back in your rotation, that’s one of those guys that get paid a lot of money because [they] are really good and one of our difference-makers.’’
Signing Gerrit Cole in free agency was the big move the Yankees made in an attempt to take that last step toward 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.
Tanaka is well behind the other Yankees starters in terms of endurance because of the time missed while recovering from his concussion, but he performed relatively well through 51 pitches and 2 2⁄3 innings.
He gave up a weak single in each of the first two innings. Holding a 5-0 lead in the third, he issued a full-count walk and a single before a two-out RBI double by Xander Bogaerts. A second run scored on the play when shortstop Gleyber Torres muffed the throw in from the outfield.
Judge put the Yankees in the driver’s seat in the first inning by homering for the fourth time in as many games, a personal record. He had homered in three straight games five times. This one was a 455-foot shot, according to Statcast.
Urshela made it 5-0 in the second with his first career grand slam. After Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman and Gary Sanchez singled to load the bases, Urshela drove Zack Godley’s pitch off the top of the centerfield wall and into the screen above Monument Park. Before the hit, Sanchez was off to an 0-for-15 start.
After Tanaka came out of the game, the relievers held Boston in check the rest of the way. And it wasn’t the usual suspects.
Luis Avilan came on to get the final out in the third and pitch a scoreless fourth. Then Nick Nelson came on for his big league debut and pitched three shutout innings. He allowed no hits and two walks, struck out four and hit 98 mph on the radar gun.
With Zack Britton needing an off day after warming up twice the night before, David Hale blanked the Red Sox in the eighth and ninth for his third career save and first of the season.
The news on Friday that bullpen mainstay Tommy Kahnle likely is headed for season-ending Tommy John surgery stung just a little bit less with Nelson showing off his power arm.
“I thought he was terrific,” Boone said. “We knew we’re going to need to lean on some of our younger guys, potentially, and not necessarily the normal high-leverage guys that we go to . . . One of the things I’m so excited about is a lot of the young arms that are knocking on the door, and Nelson is one of those.”
Tanaka had good velocity on his fastball, touching 95 mph, and his signature splitter showed effective late dip to fool some Boston hitters. A shorter stint was always Boone’s plan for this start, and Tanaka likely will be able to throw 70 pitches next time.
“The power was there again with the fastball — that’s as good a velocity as we’ve seen on his fastball really in the last couple of years,” Boone said. “I thought he threw a lot of good fastballs tonight and mixed his other pitches well. Another strong, important step for him.”
“It’s more just the excitement — the adrenaline of going back into game action — that naturally brought the velocity,” Tanaka said through his interpreter before noting the oddity of pitching in the empty Stadium.
“It did feel a little bit weird,’’ he said. “You come to realize how much the fans mean to this game of baseball. Having them in the stadium, it means a lot. Perhaps if the fans are in the stadium tonight, maybe my fastball is 2 or 3 miles [per hour] more.”