ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Before Wednesday night’s game at the Trop, the perpetually-harassed Aaron Boone insisted that the Yankees’ choice for a wild-card starter still had yet to be determined.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Boone sighed.
Let’s come at this from a different angle then and make a list of those who shouldn’t get that assignment to face the A’s. If Sonny Gray is at the top, then we’re ready to add Masahiro Tanaka somewhere among those ranks, because he’s now officially trending in the wrong direction after Wednesday’s 8-7 loss to the Rays.
Tanaka has established himself as a big-game pitcher, with the knack for rising to the occasion. It’s a useful trait come October, and not everyone has that in their DNA. But as much as Boone likes to say these past two weeks should not be considered auditions for the wild-card gig, how can they be thought of as anything else?
Trust has got to be part of the decision-making process, and Tanaka himself said late Tuesday that his splitter is AWOL and his mechanics are off. Those are not comforting details, and can the Yankees really feel secure sending him out there with the season on the line?
“Uncharacteristic” is how Boone described Tanaka’s messy first inning, when he gave back the Yankees’ 3-0 lead in ugly fashion on three singles, one walk, a hit by pitch and a throwing error that defies explanation. With runners on first and second, Tanaka hustled to his left to scoop C.J. Cron’s ground ball, but for some reason, tried to make the signature Jeter jump-throw to get an out at second base.
Jeter built a Hall of Fame career on that move. He was brilliant at it. Tanaka? Not so much. He’s always been a solid defender, but spinning around to deliver an off-balance throw at a faraway base is not something that’s typically done by a pitcher.
So what happened next was predictable. Tanaka’s throw sailed past the diving Adeiny Hechavarria and into centerfield, allowing a second run to score and extending an already terrible frame. It was an unusual act of desperation by Tanaka’s part, generously referred to as “overaggressive” by his manager. He agreed.
“I think it was a mistake on my part,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “After I caught the ball, I should have stopped there and looked at the situation. Obviously I wanted to get an out.”
But getting outs in an expedient fashion hasn’t been Tanaka’s thing lately. For the second straight start, he lasted only four innings — allowing a total of eight earned runs in that span. And Tommy Pham bit him in the usual fashion when he led off the third inning with a home run, a problem that Tanaka had mostly avoided of late.
Here’s the main issue when it comes to the wild card. Based on what the Yankees have witnessed from Tanaka in his last two outings, do they really want to risk another Luis Severino-type implosion next week, too? If Wednesday night’s game was the do-or-die playoff, Tanaka would have been pulled after the Rays scored their three runs and still had the bases loaded.
As it was, Boone allowed Tanaka to wriggled free of the jam, and he whiffed the final two batters to limit the damage. But the manager can’t afford to be as patient next Wednesday, and he’s already suggested the wild-card starter probably won’t stick around much longer than once through the lineup anyway.
With Tanaka, and his propensity for the long ball, there’s no need to use him in such a strategy when the Yankees have more attractive options in J.A. Happ and even Severino, who’s done much better lately in five-plus inning bursts. As Boone has mentioned, the wild-card showdown with the A’s will be more like a bullpen game anyway, due to the fact his well-rested relievers will be lined up like planes on a LaGuardia runway at rush hour.
The smart thing would be to make the Yankees’ dominant bullpen gets clean innings to work with, and preferably a baton of zeros to pass from one to the next. Tanaka doesn’t appear to be capable of doing that right now. Maybe in the early part of the Division Series, but not for the wild-card game. There’s just too much uncertainty with him right now, and even Tanaka has to realize that.
“Obviously I think the last two games probably did not give a good impression,” Tanaka said.
And at this late date, that’s enough to knock him out of contention.