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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

What’s more troubling for Yankees — Gary Sanchez or Masahiro Tanaka?

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 8, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Getty Images / Greg Fiume

BALTIMORE -- After the dreadful events that transpired Saturday at Camden Yards, where the Yankees fell to the Orioles again, tripped up when the bullpen blew another lead, the fallout from this 5-4 loss begs the question: Who’s in worse shape right now — a healthy Masahiro Tanaka or an injured Gary Sanchez?

From the information gathered in the postgame clubhouse, it’s a tough call. At least the Yankees know what’s wrong with Sanchez, who left the game in the fifth inning with a strained right biceps. But if Tanaka indeed is physically fine, as everyone insists he is, then the reputed ace of this Yankees’ rotation is in a place we never saw before during his four-year tenure in the Bronx. He’s scrambling for his survival out there and looked desperate toward the end of his five-inning stint, which, incredibly, was an improvement from his Opening Day debacle.

The boxscore shows that Tanaka allowed only three runs, and it’s a credit to his fortitude that he somehow exited this game with the Yankees ahead 4-3. But a closer examination reveals the serious trouble he was in after a breezy first three innings. To finish the last two, he needed 60 pitches, including 35 to escape a bases-loaded jam in the fifth.

Tanaka’s command mysteriously vanished again, and he hit two batters in the span of two innings. For some perspective, he plunked only three in 199 2⁄3 innings last season. And the four walks? That equaled his total in five previous career starts against the Orioles. Also uncharacteristic? Tanaka’s body language. A few times, he got upset with himself, smacking his glove against his leg, the anger evident on his face.

Sure, it’s only two starts. But he has an 11.74 ERA and has allowed 14 hits and six walks in 7 2⁄3 innings. That’s not Tanaka.

We probably can shelve the opt-out debate for a few months, at least until his ERA gets below double-digits or he gets past the fifth inning.

“Obviously I’m disappointed,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “I feel like I wasn’t able to do what a starter is supposed to do. But you can’t put your head down.”

Unlike Tanaka’s Opening Day implosion, nobody was blaming an adrenaline spike or over-caffeinated butterflies. And as he was going down fighting in the fifth, the usually measured Tanaka was rifling some of the fastest pitches we’ve seen, repeatedly touching 97 on the radar gun. Clearly, he was emptying the tank, and maybe full exertion was the only way to control where the ball was going.

“He struggled in that last inning,” Joe Girardi said. “They made him work really hard.”

If Tanaka can’t stabilize the rotation, then who? According to YES researcher James Smythe, this season is only the second time in 100 years that a Yankees starter failed to record an out in the sixth inning in the first five games. The other was 2007, when Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Darrell Rasner and Kei Igawa came up short.

Taking all that into account, Tanaka still pitches only every fifth day or so. The loss of Sanchez has the potential to have a much greater impact on the Yankees if he’s out for a long period of time. But there are a few things from Saturday that could point to Sanchez avoiding a lengthy absence. For one, the Yankees quickly pulled him after his vicious hack at a 97-mph fastball, which he fouled off.

“It feels like a muscle pull,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “Injuries are part of the game. I feel positive and I want to stay positive. I want to get back as soon as possible.”

The Yankees immediately put Sanchez on the 10-day disabled list after the game, and he will undergo more tests when the team returns to New York. That sounds ominous. But as long as there isn’t more serious damage, Sanchez does have youth in his favor — he’s 24, not 34 — and it shouldn’t require more than two weeks to heal.

The caveat here is that the Yankees have to be careful of Sanchez’s throwing arm, especially as a catcher.

“That plays into it, too,” Girardi said.

In the meantime, the void left by Sanchez will force Girardi to rethink the lineup, and he suggested maybe putting Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury together again up top.

Replacing Sanchez’s offensive might is impossible, but he’ll recover from this.

With Tanaka, the fact that he feels OK could be the most troubling part.


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