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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees exceeding all expectations with fast start to season

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees delivers in the second inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 27, 2017 in Boston. Credit: Getty Images / Adam Glanzman

BOSTON — The statement, uttered by Brian Cashman during the December winter meetings, remains as much a part of the GM’s wardrobe as the down vest and denim he sported before Thursday night’s game at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox had just acquired Chris Sale in a blockbuster trade, and when Cashman was asked for his reaction, he referred to his AL East rival as the Golden State Warriors, who months earlier rocked the NBA by grabbing Kevin Durant in free agency.

Cashman’s insinuation was clear. Just as the Warriors were said to have guaranteed another title by signing Durant, the same would be true for the Red Sox, who could now pair Sale with $217-million man David Price. When those two were teamed with Boston’s young, potent lineup, it would be a tough combination to derail.

Sticking the label of favorite on the Red Sox, a weight the Yankees have labored under during Cashman’s entire front-office reign, surely was liberating for the GM. And with that backstory heading into Thursday night’s duel between Sale and Masahiro Tanaka, think of how elated Cashman must feel now, after the Yankees’ resurgent ace pitched a three-hit shutout to key a 3-0 victory and defeat Boston’s newest hero in front of 34,054 at Fenway Park.

“It put more pressure on him,” Joe Girardi said of Tanaka, “and he rose to the occasion.”

Nearly a month into the season, that also applies to the rest of the Yankees’ roster, a group picked to finish in the middle of the pack, at best, in the division. To Sale, who has blow-torched his way through the schedule, Thursday’s Fenway showdown didn’t shape up to be a more significant challenge. He also had been especially lethal facing the Yankees, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 1.17 ERA against them was the lowest by any pitcher since the stat became official in 1912 (based on a minimum of 50 innings).

The safe bet would have been for that dominance to continue, as Sale’s 0.91 ERA through his first four starts, to go with 42 strikeouts, was superhuman. But the Yankees stayed persistent Thursday, and managed to peck away at Sale with a pair of RBIs from Matt Holliday. As for Tanaka, he didn’t waste any time restoring his reputation before April was through.

If Sale was considered unbeatable, then Tanaka convinced himself he’d find a way. In a pregame chat with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Tanaka eagerly spoke of the challenge awaiting him. Perhaps a conversation not all that different from LeBron James psyching himself up for a showdown with the Durant-led Warriors.

“People thought that Chris Sale had the upper hand,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “I wanted to go in there and beat the odds.”

During the first three innings, that didn’t seem logical. Sale retired nine of the first 10 and struck out seven, the only glitch being Ronald Torreyes’ infield single in the third. The dazzling early performance had chatter about a no-hitter soon percolating in the press box, but Tanaka wasn’t fazed by what was going on as he watched Sale from the dugout bench.

Tanaka didn’t rack up the strikeouts that Sale did, whiffing only three, but he held the Red Sox to just three singles. Even with Dustin Pedroia back leading off after missing three games with a bruised knee, Boston had only one runner get as far as second base. The shutout was the first against the Red Sox since Mike Mussina in 2002, also at Fenway Park, and Tanaka’s 97-pitch effort represented the fewest by a Yankee in a nine-inning complete game since Chien-Ming Wang’s 93 in 2008, again in Boston.

“He was phenomenal,” Chase Headley said. “It felt like he was in control the whole night. That’s what a No. 1 does.”

It’s one night, and with over five months to go, the Yankees didn’t want to get overly wrapped up in a this one victory, as gratifying as it was. But they won. And as we mentioned to Cashman before the game, his Yankees are currently ahead of the “Warriors” in the AL East.

“Thanks for letting me know,” Cashman said, then smiled before adding, “We’ve still got work to do.”

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