BALTIMORE — In the minutes leading up to Wednesday night’s rain-delayed start at Camden Yards, where Masahiro Tanaka climbed the mound after a 13-strikeout blitzing of the A’s, we were warming to the idea of a better-than-adequate Yankees’ rotation. Maybe one that could even support a playoff push as currently constructed.
Through the season’s first two months, this group had defied its spring-training narrative, and turned the team’s most glaring weakness into a surprising strength. Before the series finale against the Orioles, the Yankees’ starters had not surrendered more than two earned runs in any of the previous nine games, with a 1.76 ERA during that span and 65 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings.
Two hours into Tanaka’s sobering performance, however, that momentum screeched to a crashing halt. Whatever heights you can imagine for the Yankees’ rotation, Tanaka remains tied around their ankles like a cinder block, and the seven runs he allowed in 5 2/3 innings during the 10-4 loss inflated his ERA back up to an unsightly 6.34.
“It’s tough,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “But you’ve got to be resilient and keep on fighting.”
How painfully ironic that the Yankees’ starter pegged as the most reliable in March is now the least trustworthy. Before Tanaka’s latest flop, the rotation’s 4.09 ERA had ranked fifth in the American League, its 1.25 WHIP a lofty second. All this in spite of Tanaka, who is pitching like a $22-million liability, with last Friday night’s progress now seemingly wiped away — and more issues to solve, including his ineffective slider.
“If we knew how, we’d have a Nintendo controller and fix it every time,” Joe Girardi said. “There’s a human element, too. Nobody’s perfect in this game.”
Girardi mentioned Dallas Keuchel, the Astros’ ace, who stumbled to a 4.55 ERA last year after winning the Cy Young, but has bounced back. Right now, Keuchel’s clunker would be a dream season for Tanaka, and these BP sessions are dampening the good vibes generated by the rest of the starting crew.
Aside from Tanaka, there had been reasons for optimism, from the sage leadership of a revived CC Sabathia right down to Jordan Montgomery, the rookie lefty who occasionally reminds us of a still-green Andy Pettitte, if we squint hard enough. Once Tanaka got himself straightened out — inevitable, right? — we figured Brian Cashman might be able to keep Hal Steinbrenner happy by not trading prospects for pitching help. And if something went sideways, Cashman still had the fast-rising Chance Adams on speed dial down at Triple-A Scranton, where he whiffed 12 during Wednesday’s six-inning gem.
“He could be the starter they’re looking for,” an opposing scout told Newsday’s Erik Boland after watching Adams. “Power breaking stuff and plus-fastballs.”
There’s just one glitch in this rosy plan: Tanaka isn’t doing his part. Everyone has their cold streaks, their mechanical flaws to correct, their confidence lapses. But now we’re feeling a little duped by what he did in taking apart the free-swinging A’s last Friday night in the Bronx.
His 13-K performance that night suggested Tanka had indeed turned a corner, that the slider was bending again, the signature splitter diving on cue. But on the last day of May, it didn’t go down like that. The Orioles repeatedly hammered Tanaka with hard contact, and his early flirtations with danger wound up burning him in the third inning on a costly gaffe by the usually solid rightfielder, Aaron Judge, who misplayed Mark Trumbo’s liner into a two-run double on what should have been the third out.
Bad reads happen. But the normally-cool Tanaka never regained his composure, and he got into trouble again in the fourth inning, also with two outs. J.J. Hardy’s double kicked it off, followed by a walk to Seth Smith and Jones’ three-run homer, the result of a flat sinker. Tanaka couldn’t command either side of the plate, and the Orioles blasted him for nine hits when he wound up in the middle.
“This is more than a little bump,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “It’s a big bump. But we’ll get through it.”
The Yankees will begin June in first place, but they’ll do so by carrying Tanaka. And that’s not likely to be a sustainable trend.