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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka looks sharp pitching live batting practice

Masahiro Tanaka throws simulated game at Yankees camp

TAMPA, Fla.

Masahiro Tanaka certainly was pleased by his performance after throwing live batting practice Thursday at Steinbrenner Field. The splitter dipped, his command was tight, and overall he felt much, much better than a year ago, when he was coming off surgery to fix a bone spur in his elbow.

That satisfaction was muted, however, compared to the broad smile that creased Tanaka’s face when asked about a recent bass-fishing excursion with Japanese angling pro Morizo Shimizu, not far from where he pitches for his day job. While baseball is work, fishing is Tanaka’s recreational love, and his Instagram account (@masahiro_tanaka.official) features a few of his prize catches.

Earlier this month, Tanaka joined Shimizu on a fishing trip that a Japanese television station filmed. Unfortunately, it was mostly a quiet afternoon on the water, until the sun was sinking fast and Tanaka finally got the hit he was looking for. The payoff? A bass that measured 56.5 centimeters (roughly 22 1⁄2 inches), the largest he’s ever landed.

On Instagram there’s Tanaka, in a purple-and-red plaid overcoat, holding up his trophy as Shimizu points in celebration.

“It’s a relaxing time for me,” Tanaka said Thursday through his interpreter. “It’s during the offseason and you’re just going out there having a good time and just relaxing. To me, having that time is as important as playing baseball because you really do need that downtime.”

There hasn’t been much of that for Tanaka, who’s been progressing rapidly without the restrictions of a year ago and remains on pace to be the Yankees’ Opening Day starter April 2 against the Rays. Thursday’s session drew the usual media crowd behind the backstop and the expected raves from his teammates, who managed only a few feeble hacks.

“The splitter was really nasty,” said Triple-A catcher Kyle Higashioka, who was behind the plate. “I think he was ahead of where he was last year, definitely. I’m probably seeing a little more life on his fastball and added sharpness to his off-speed pitches. It looked really good.”

If the Yankees aim to beat expectations this season, Tanaka, the only ace-caliber pitcher left standing, is integral to keeping this rebuilding operation afloat. After CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda — far from sure bets — the Yankees are holding open auditions for the final two spots in the rotation.

A healthy Tanaka is a must, especially with what’s at stake personally; he has an opt-out clause waiting for him at the end of this season.

The Yankees’ headline-grabbing 2016 fire sale obscured Tanaka’s own superb campaign — a 14-4 record and 3.07 ERA that netted him seventh place in the Cy Young Award balloting.

If Tanaka was able to turn a cautiously methodical spring training into a top 10 Cy Young finish, we’re wondering what a more normal Grapefruit tune-up could mean. That evaluation will begin Tuesday, when Tanaka makes his debut against the Tigers at Steinbrenner Field, and the Yankees sound optimistic about the March template for their ace after watching him Thursday.

“I thought he was fine,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “I thought his arm was quick. He’s built up pretty well and hopefully it stays that way. Right now, he’s in a good spot.”

Tanaka, 28, already is entering Year Four with the Yankees, with a $22-million annual salary through 2019. It jumps to $23 million in 2020. While that seems to be a pretty generous package, look at how contracts for some of the elite pitchers have skyrocketed since Tanaka was posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013. Zack Greinke ($34M), David Price ($31M), Clayton Kershaw ($30M) and Max Scherzer ($30M) shattered the ceiling for No. 1 starters, one after the next, and that keeps pushing the market higher for top-caliber pitching.

As much as Tanaka seems comfortable with the Yankees, with this roster still in the midst of a rebuild, he has to question whether he’ll have a shot at a World Series ring in the next few years.

Three years ago, he was part of the Yankees’ reloading efforts, which resulted in a total investment of nearly $500 million.

Now he’s still a big fish, but one of the few in this Bronx pond.

New York Sports