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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

For Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, history shows his rest is important to success

Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka gets a new

Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka gets a new baseball after giving up a three-run homer to Detroit's Ian Kinsler in the fifth inning at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, June 11, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Since the day Masahiro Tanaka first arrived in the Bronx, we’ve been conditioned to respect the critical importance of additional rest, whenever possible, for the Yankees’ $155-million ace. Switching to a five-man rotation from Japan’s typical six was the initial concern, followed by the lingering worry over a small UCL tear from his rookie season.

That’s why the Yankees always have been super-cautious with Tanaka’s pitching schedule, regularly adjusting the rotation to give him a breather now and again. Until the past month anyway, when a torturous 40-games-in-41-days gantlet forced Tanaka to pitch Saturday night against the Tigers without an extra break for the third consecutive start, the first time in his career he’s done so.

Unthinkable the previous two seasons, the Yankees had no choice this year, other than to hope Tanaka could handle the stress test. “We have to do what’s best for the whole team,” Joe Girardi said.

More Tanaka would seem better for the Yankees than less, even if the numbers suggest it’s wise to give him as much rest as possible. Tanaka’s tiring three-start stretch may not be the reason he served up home runs to Nick Castellanos and Ian Kinsler in Saturday night’s 6-1 loss to the Tigers, but it sure looked that way.

Castellanos’ leadoff shot in the second inning came on an 0-and-2 fastball, a career first for Tanaka in such a favorable count. Kinsler ambushed a first-pitch heater, at a tepid 91 mph, for his three-run homer in the fifth inning. The Tigers sent a few other long drives to the deepest parts of Death Valley over Tanaka’s 6 1⁄3-inning stint, and the pair of home runs were the first he had allowed in four games.

Asked later if the abbreviated rest finally caught up to him, Tanaka replied through his interpreter, “Not necessarily.” But that’s not a firm no, either. Tanaka also was tagged for five earned runs, nudging his ERA from 2.76 to 3.08, thanks to Kirby Yates letting one inherited run score on a Kinsler double in the seventh.

Tanaka may have waffled on the impact of his tighter schedule, but the numbers reveal an unmistakable trend. Before Saturay night, Tanaka was 1-1 with a 4.22 ERA and 1.250 WHIP in five starts this season on four days’ rest. Also, opponents were batting .274 against him with a .733 OPS. Increase that to five days, however, and Tanaka goes from so-so to Cy Young, at 2-0 with a 1.26 ERA and 0.757 WHIP in five starts. The batting average droops to .180 and the OPS slides to .437.

Given the choice, the Yankees would go with the latter Tanaka every time. But as Girardi mentioned, there are other pitchers affected by those decisions, and they’re not real ly equipped to go to a six-man rotation as long as Luis Severino still is finding himself at Triple-A Scranton. Fortunately, the Yankees have three days off coming up in the next two weeks, so Tanaka will get the break he apparently is craving right around now.

“That would just naturally happen,” Girardi said.

The need to push Tanaka this hard, this early, does make us wonder how the rest of the rotation will hold up over the long haul, especially with 35-year-old CC Sabathia pitching like an All-Star. Sabathia trimmed his ERA to 2.28 with seven scoreless innings Friday night, the lowest it’s ever been through 10 or more starts to begin a season. For a larger sample size, Sabathia has a 2.54 ERA since early August, a stretch of 19 starts.

Girardi traces Sabathia’s success to his wearing of a brace for a weak right knee, and scouts have credited a newly refined ability to locate his pitches, especially his cut fastball and changeup. Eventually, hitters get impatient, and play into Sabathia’s strength, as the Tigers did Friday.

With these two, however, the Yankees have to think about preservation as much as performance. Tanaka used to be a workhorse in Japan, but Girardi has to be sensitive about extending him here. As for Sabathia, he’s second among active pitchers with 3,048 innings on his resume — behind only Bartolo Colon (3,053 2⁄3).

As long as the Yankees are careful, the payoff can be great. The alternative, however, could be disaster.

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