Amid the disappointment of the Yankees’ recent postseason history — no World Series appearances since 2009 and one ALCS berth the past half-decade — Masahiro Tanaka has emerged as a steady October hand, establishing a track record that says he is as experienced and effective in the playoffs as any other current Yankees pitcher.
Last year, he made only one appearance in the Yankees’ abbreviated postseason, a solid ALDS start against the Red Sox. The year before that, there were two sharp outings against the Astros in the ALCS, which followed seven scoreless innings against the Indians in the ALDS. In 2015, Tanaka’s postseason debut, the Yankees gave him the ball in the wild-card game and he took the loss against the Astros (five innings, two runs).
And so as Tanaka prepares for his 2019 postseason debut in ALDS Game 2 against the Twins on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, he brings an impressive postseason resume: five starts, 1.50 ERA, 0.80 WHIP.
“It's about being yourself,” Tanaka said Friday afternoon through his interpreter. “Being yourself on that mound and executing your pitches. At the end of the day, I think that's where it all kind of comes down to.”
That seems to be the gist of Tanaka’s answers about a lot of things.
How will he navigate the Twins’ lineup, which hit more home runs than any other team in baseball history? “Just having confidence in every pitch that you throw and just to be yourself and really execute, I think,” he said. “That becomes the key.”
What does he like about the pressure of October? “I guess I just will be reiterating what I just said,” he said.
And what about playing in the Bronx, where he had a 3.10 ERA this year (versus 6.05 on the road)? “I just go out there and try to give out the best performance that I have,” he said.
In addition to leaning on his playoff experience after a regular season in which he had a 4.45 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in a career-high 32 games, Tanaka can take solace in the reemergence of his splitter.
Before the All-Star break, opposing hitters had a .308 average and .526 slugging percentage against the splitter, according to Brooks Baseball. Tanaka threw it 26 percent of the time.
After the All-Star break, opposing hitters batted .240 with a .339 slugging percentage against it. Tanaka’s usage of the splitter ticked up to 31 percent of his pitches.
Having that pitch working — and diving out of the strike zone — will be important against a Twins team that likes to elevate and celebrate.
“I'm pretty confident in the splitter that I have right now,” Tanaka said. “We tried everything. We looked at a lot of aspects — mechanics, how I gripped the ball, all that. It was rough and tough because I wasn't able to come to a good sort of answer, really getting the good splitter back during the season.
“So it was a struggle, but at the end of the day, you keep trying. You work on your mechanics, on your grip, and you just keep on trying and trying, and I feel like towards the end of the season, I was able to really find that good splitter and get that back.”
((stats from baseball-reference.com))
GAME 2 PITCHING MATCHUP
*-2019 regular season statistic
Career vs. Twins: 5-0, 2.27 ERA