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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Amazing! Masahiro Tanaka allowed to throw 114 pitches

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka looks

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka looks toward first base during a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, July 9, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It says something about how we're conditioned to think in 2015 that the most remarkable aspect of Masahiro Tanaka's line Thursday was the number of pitches he threw.

Not that he allowed only two hits in 72/3 innings or that he didn't give up a run after the A's dented him for a pair in the second. Six strikeouts? Noteworthy, but hardly anything to get excited about.

As Tanaka cruised through the middle innings of the Yankees' 6-2 win, during which the Oakland hitters resembled green-and-gold mannequins, we couldn't help but be fixated on the pitch count.

For a sport that brags about its timeless quality and the charm of getting those 27 outs, what amounts to a pitcher's odometer is really a clock. We can see how long he's got left, depending on the trigger finger of his manager, right there on the scoreboard.

And for that, Tanaka no doubt was thrilled that Joe Girardi permitted him to throw 114 pitches, his high for this season and the most since he totaled 116 on June 28, 2014, in a complete game against the Red Sox. His MLB Everest remains 118 (May 25, 2014).

But we're appreciative, too. As were the 40,084 fans there to see him in the Bronx. What a treat to have a starter blow straight past that mythical 100-pitch barrier and into the scary terrain that lies beyond.

And get this: Girardi, who usually gets nervous midway through the fourth inning, actually considered letting Tanaka finish off the eighth.

Considered, mind you.

Don't worry. It didn't actually happen.

Although Tanaka had retired 18 of the last 19 batters -- the only man to get on base was Billy Butler, who struck out but reached on a wild pitch -- Girardi practically leaped the dugout stairs to retrieve him.

Tanaka's last two batters were Mark Canha and Marcus Semien, and he struck out both. The problem was that it took 15 pitches to do so.

"If the inning would have been quicker, I might have let him go one more hitter," Girardi said. "It was a pretty easy decision with the two long at-bats."

No argument here. Tanaka has been through a lot, between last year's minor UCL tear and subsequent forearm strain this April, so there's no need to get reckless.

If he had been given the chance, we're sure Tanaka would have stifled the A's the rest of the way. His slider and splitter were that good.

Even with a short bullpen, however, Girardi always favors the most cautious approach, and no one knows for sure what exactly is going on inside Tanaka's elbow.

As Girardi explained, Tanaka was pitching with an extra day of rest -- and will be getting a lengthy breather during the All-Star break -- so he could be stretched out a bit more than usual.

For us, it was just refreshing to watch a starting pitcher breathe a little. To get in a rhythm, ride a wave, however you'd like to describe what Tanaka was enjoying. And be allowed to shake off a bumpy second inning in order to find it. For all the worrying about Tanaka this season, anxiety got the afternoon off.

"I haven't been able to go long for some time," he said through his interpreter, "so yes, I think it was good for me."

Tanaka not only ended a four-game winless streak but enjoyed his longest start since that complete game against Boston more than a year ago.

Tanaka routinely blew past 100 pitches in 14 of his first 16 starts last year, then fell short of that figure in his next two starts before being shut down because of his partial UCL tear.

Was it the workload, both in Japan and here, that eventually caught up to Tanaka? That's the prevailing theory. But it begs the eternal question of pitches vs. innings: what's the true measure of wear-and-tear on arms, elbows and shoulders?

Girardi was satisfied that Tanaka didn't expend much effort against the A's into the eighth, so he left the phone on the hook.

"I pushed him a little bit," he said.

You won't hear that often from the Yankees' manager, who seems as if he maps out his bullpen moves at the breakfast table that morning. But Girardi clearly felt good about Tanaka on Thursday. And the Yankees hope that means they'll get to see plenty more of him in the second half.

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