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A great sign for Masahiro Tanaka: The splitter was working

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka delivers a pitch during

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka delivers a pitch during the first inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Unless your goal was to honor the remarkable Derek Jeter (fourth consecutive two-hit game) or marvel at how the universe decided to make Chris Young the Yankees' cleanup hitter, Sunday was all about Masahiro Tanaka.

And to us, that meant the Yankees' 5-2 win over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium was all about Tanaka's splitter.

Tanaka's first start since July 8 was a referendum on his health, of course, in particular the small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.

The surest way to determine how his elbow was going to hold up was to track his signature pitch, the world-class splitter that had made him a very rich man and a star on two continents.

It's also a pitch that can put strain on the arm; you have to be healthy to throw it effectively.

Early returns? Good. Very good.

Tanaka allowed one run in 51/3 innings. He gave up five hits, walked none, hit a batter and struck out four. He earned his 13th victory, which still leads the Yankees.

Tanaka, through his translator, described himself as "satisfied,'' "relieved'' and "pain-free.''

Tanaka seemed reluctant to throw the splitter early; his first one didn't appear until his 14th pitch. It was a typically down-and-dirty offering at 87 miles per hour that Dioner Navarro swung over for the third out of the first inning.

In total, we had Tanaka throwing 15 splitters among his 70 pitches (21.4 percent). His pre-injury average was 25 percent.

"That's the pitch that . . . that's one of his best pitches,'' said Brian McCann, who caught himself in mid-gush, something the modest Tanaka would appreciate. "To still get the late action he had on it, that's a great sign.''

Tanaka has a sneaky fastball and a better-than-advertised curve and slider, but it's the splitter that makes him special. Sunday showed why, and that gives the Yankees hope heading into an extremely uncertain post-Jeter 2015.

On the 15 splitters, Tanaka either threw a strike or had a ball put in play for an out 12 times. He threw two balls, both to Ryan Goins in a fifth-inning at-bat. In fact, Tanaka threw seven of his 15 splitters to Goins, Toronto's eighth-place hitter, who was batting .186 coming in.

Three of Tanaka's strikeouts came when batters flailed at splitters. The fourth was when Tanaka's former World Baseball Classic teammate, Munenori Kawasaki, looked at a 91-mph fastball one pitch after swinging over a splitter. Smart pitching.

Tanaka's last pitch was a flat splitter that Edwin Encarnacion grounded into rightfield for a single. It was the only negative outcome on the pitch for Tanaka all day, but even that one wasn't hit hard.

At its best, the splitter darted down and away from a lefthanded batter. At its worst, it floated and stayed up in the zone. That happened on Encarnacion's hit and also on a 3-and-2 splitter Tanaka threw to Goins after the two balls in the fifth. But Goins could only top the offering back to Tanaka for an easy 1-3. Not every mistake pitch is hit out of the park.

Why so many splitters to Goins? "No particular reason,'' Tanaka said. But you better bet there was a reason Tanaka just chose not to reveal.

After throwing only one for the first 12/3 innings, Tanaka suddenly fired four good ones in a row to Goins with a man on second. The results? Swinging strike, foul, foul, swinging strike three.

It was a hint of dominance. It was what the Yankees, and Tanaka himself, needed to see, not for this season but for the one that begins next April 6 against these same Blue Jays.

If Tanaka is on the Yankee Stadium mound on that day, then Sunday truly was a success.

New York Sports