The beauty of a playoff elimination game lies in its simplicity.
For the Yankees, there was nothing left but Sunday night, six months boiled down to nine innings. And for that assignment, Joe Girardi turned to Masahiro Tanaka, who had been alternatively brilliant and baffling this year.
Here’s the baseball. Now go save the season.
Well, Tanaka didn’t give it back to Girardi until he was through seven scoreless innings, after striking out seven, and allowing only three hits to lead the Yankees to a 1-0 victory over the Indians that sets up Monday’s ALDS Game 4 in the Bronx.
“The pressure was there,” Tanaka said through his translator. “But you have to go out there and perform. My thought was that if we’re able to get a win here, then we have a chance of turning this series around.”
The Yankees are alive, so Tanaka accomplished the primary goal. Whatever happens next is beyond his reach, but he was in control of the Indians for most of Game 3. In this October of the Reliever, when starting pitchers have been treated as little more than opening acts for the bullpen, Tanaka hogged the spotlight for himself, outdueling Carlos Carrasco in a performance that made Yankees fans forget the inconsistency that defined his year to that point.
Tanaka had fallen so far, in fact, that Girardi pushed his $155-million pitcher back to the No. 4 spot for the playoffs. But the manager did have enough faith to allow Tanaka to start Sunday’s do-or-die game rather than bring back Luis Severino, the 23-year-old who supplanted him as the Yankees’ ace, for Game 3.
It couldn’t have been the easiest decision for Girardi, who you may have noticed had a rough couple days after botching the Game 2 loss in Cleveland, blowing a five-run lead by sabotaging a terrible sixth inning. Tanaka showed that it was the right one almost immediately, however, featuring a splitter that not only dived sharply, but at 90-91 mph, was among the hardest he had thrown all season.
“I think every win starts in the pitcher’s hand,” Girardi said. “How he goes out and attacks the hitters, and gives you a chance to win. I know he had 15 strikeouts the other day, but this was his best performance against a great hitting club that had momentum and he was able to shut ’em down.”
Factoring in that 15-K night against the Blue Jays, Tanaka has thrown 14 consecutive scoreless innings, with a total of 22 strikeouts over that span. He’s also the first Yankee with at least seven scoreless and seven Ks in a playoff game since Roger Clemens (8.0 IP, 9 Ks) against the Mets in Game 2 of the 2000 World Series.
Perhaps the signature moment was the one that was most uncharacteristic for Tanaka, which came during a tense fourth inning. With one out, Jason Kipnis ripped a deep fly to rightfield that Aaron Judge chased and actually outran — as he reached back, the ball kicked off his glove and rolled along the grass for a triple.
It was the first triple Tanaka had allowed this season, and with Carrasco matching his zeroes, this could have been the game-changer. But Tanaka stayed cool, striking out Jose Ramirez with a 91-mph splitter — helped by a great block by Gary Sanchez — and then used another splitter to whiff Jay Bruce, who had three Ks against him.
As soon as Bruce swung through air, Tanaka spun around on the mound, pumping his fists and letting loose a celebratory scream. This was a Tanaka rarely seen since he signed with the Yankees four years ago, exulting in the moment he so badly craved.
“Probably the biggest win that I have gotten since I came here,” Tanaka said through his translator. “I came here to pitch in these type of games, and to be able to help the team win in these type of games.”
Ultimately, there will be a day when Tanaka decides on his opt-out clause, and whether or not he chooses to stay in the Bronx. But what Tanaka delivered Sunday night makes us believe that he wants more of that, and for now, he insured the potential for October glory will continue for both him and the Yankees.