Perhaps the most revealing moment from Masahiro Tanaka’s terrible outing Tuesday night, when the Red Sox essentially used him for Home Run Derby, occurred after Andrew Benintendi’s stunning blast into the rightfield second deck, Boston’s third home run in five innings.
The ball had barely touched down, a dozen rows back, when Tanaka could be seen with a confused look on his face, muttering something under his breath. The pitch, like many before it, was awful: a two-seam fastball, or sinker, that did virtually nothing but sit perfectly in Benintendi’s hot zone.
Tanaka appeared exasperated. Out of answers. Totally lost.
That’s the troubling aspect of Tanaka’s precipitous nosedive from Yankees’ once formidable ace to the rotation’s very weak link. No one — not him, not Joe Girardi, not Larry Rothschild, not Brian Cashman — can determine why his slider no longer slides or the splitter no longer drops as it should.
“It’s something we’re trying to figure out,” Girardi said after the Yankees’ 5-4 loss to the Red Sox. “Nothing has really changed.”
Tanaka’s pitches simply aren’t working right now, to disastrous effect. Over his last 36 innings, a stretch of seven starts, Tanaka has served up 14 home runs, more than any other Yankee has allowed this season. For a pitcher of Tanaka’s pedigree, it’s an unimaginable streak, and he’s repeatedly been living the same nightmare, even after spending the four days (and sometimes five) between starts to troubleshoot his issues as his ERA has soared back up to 6.55.
And now comes the hard part. What to do with Tanaka, who insists that he’s fine physically, despite the history of the small UCL tear inside his elbow. As long as he’s healthy, and the Yankees have yet to say otherwise, they don’t have much of a choice but to keep sending him to the mound.
“There’s nothing that leads us to believe that he’s hurt,” Girardi said.
Aside from a wounded ego maybe, but that isn’t DL-worthy, and the Yankees don’t seem willing yet to summon Chance Adams, who has dominated at Triple-A Scranton. Adams actually had a slightly off night by his standards yesterday, allowing three runs over six innings and striking out seven as his ERA inched upward to 2.17.
The Yankees would prefer to wait on Adams, and more importantly, want to first repair Tanaka, who can’t just be written off, not with another three years and $67 million left on his contract. At this rate, it’s not like he’s going to be opting out after this season. But if the Yankees intend to win the AL East — their lead has shrunk to one game — how long can they keep covering for him? Girardi said they haven’t discussed other options and it doesn’t sound as if Tanaka is going to volunteer to step aside for maintenance.
“I can’t give you an idea on that,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “That’s up to the manager.”
Cashman was hopeful Tanaka was ready to reverse the trend against the Red Sox, a team that he beat on April 27 with a three-hit shutout at Fenway Park. A month later, Tanaka whiffed 13 over 7 1⁄3 innings against the free-swinging A’s, a dazzling performance the Yankees wanted to believe had cured his problems.
But Tanaka stumbled in his next start, giving up seven runs to the Orioles at Camden Yards, and then returned to the Bronx for additional punishment from a Red Sox team that arrived with the second-fewest homers in the majors, hitting only 53 in 56 games. The Sox went back-to-back in the fourth inning, first with Mitch Moreland’s 434-foot moonshot to rightfield followed by Hanley Ramirez launching a deep drive to left. Moreland destroyed an 85-mph slider that simply spun without moment — a “cement-mixer,” as it were — and Ramirez reached down to crush a 90-mph two-seamer that stayed in a tasty spot to barrel up.
Tanaka didn’t even turn to watch when Ramirez made contact, already knowing where it was headed. He only mustered a pair of Ks — his lowest total of the season — and the outs seemed more lucky than anything he did. Tanaka was fooling no one, and the creeping doubt might be having a corrosive effect on his psyche.
“Maybe there’s an element of pressing too hard,” Tanaka said.
Now the clock is ticking again. Four more days to come up with a solution for Tanaka — or a replacement. Neither one is going to be easy to find.
Masahiro Tanaka has put up some scary numbers this season:
Earned runs 48
Home runs 17