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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

If this is the real Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees have a problem

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka stands

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka stands on the mound between pitches in the fourth inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium on Monday, April 6, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

After all the discussion about velocity and pitch selection and the extent of the damage to Masahiro Tanaka's right elbow, we didn't need a radar gun or MRI tube to explain what everyone saw Monday at Yankee Stadium.

This was not the same Tanaka we watched during the first half of last season -- before the small UCL tear surfaced -- and we don't get the sense we'll be seeing much of that pitcher again for as long as Tanaka's elbow stays intact this year.

Tanaka couldn't get to the fifth inning in a 6-1 loss to Toronto that confirmed some of the worst fears about the Yankees coming out of spring training.

There was concern that he would pitch tentatively to protect the elbow and throw fewer four-seam fastballs, at lower speeds, in doing so.

The Yankees did get him to Opening Day in one piece after carefully managing him through the Grapefruit League schedule, and the assumption was that he'd figure it out once he arrived on the Yankee Stadium mound.

For two innings, it looked as if he had. Relying primarily on his slider and splitter, he struck out three and allowed only an infield hit by Dioner Navarro. He kept the Jays guessing with his off-speed mixture, and it seemed the formula might work.

But Tanaka unraveled quickly in the third inning, a process started with a single by No. 8 hitter Kevin Pillar and a five-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Devon Travis. When Chase Headley botched Jose Reyes' bunt, skipping his throw past first base, it allowed a run to score and created a mess Tanaka couldn't escape. Russell Martin slapped a two-run single through the right side of the infield and, one out later, Edwin Encarnacion blasted a two-run homer to leftfield.

Even with Tanaka's elbow situation, to see him come apart like that was shocking. Last season, he showed the ability to wriggle free of the rare trouble he found himself in. Not this time.

After falling behind 2-and-0 on a pair of sinkers to Encarnacion, Tanaka threw a splitter for a called strike. But when his next sinker came skimming into the strike zone at 90 mph, Encarnacion hammered it.

"Velocity can be talked about a lot," Joe Girardi said. "We've seen guys throw 95 and get hit really hard. It comes down to location, movement and deception, which he had the first two innings. The third inning he didn't because he got in bad counts, and that can be a problem."

If Tanaka is worried about the elbow, that can be reflected in a lack of velocity, making him more reluctant to throw his four-seam fastball at the upper edge of the strike zone -- a critical spot to keep hitters off the downward-breaking pitches. On Monday, he threw only 26 fastballs out of 82 pitches, or 32 percent of the time. Last year, 40 percent of his pitches were fastballs, according to PITCHf/x.

When Tanaka was asked why he didn't throw as many, he replied matter-of-factly, "Because they were being hit."

Well, that's a problem regardless of whether the Yankees choose to admit it, and they did their best to shrug off the very un-Tanaka-like performance.

Yes, he did consistently fall behind in counts, and that led to his demise. But when your supposed ace is bounced after four innings and clearly doesn't look like himself, that's an issue.

At the moment, they insist it has nothing to do with his elbow. "Physically he seems to be fine," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "I've watched him between starts all spring. He's building arm strength still. I think he's holding his own right now. These aren't the results you anticipate or want, but I think you have to be reasonable in the way you look at things."

What choice do the Yankees have? Tanaka was prescribed rest, rehab and platelet-rich plasma injections rather than Tommy John surgery for his UCL tear. No one has given any indication of that changing in the near future, barring a more significant injury to the elbow.

Tanaka eventually may need the surgery. But if Monday is the best he can do in the meantime, this course of action is not a great alternative -- for him or the Yankees, if they seriously plan to contend this season.

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