Tanaka responded by allowing only three hits and one run while striking out six over 6 1/3 innings as the Yankees beat the Tigers, 2-1.
"He went through a tough lineup today and did a really good job," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
The conditions were far from ideal, as the temperature at first pitch was 33 degrees, but Tanaka effectively cooled off the Tigers. The Rays' lineup he faced Saturday was scattered with role players and callups due to injuries, but there was no getting around the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez on Thursday.
"I'm really satisfied with the way I was pitching," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "To put it in perspective, I'm as satisfied as I was pitching against Tampa."
As for the weather, Tanaka admitted the obvious: It was "pretty cold out there." But as a high schooler, he pitched in Hokkaido, in the northern part of Japan, and that helped prepare him for the chilly Detroit air.
"As I was pitching, I was remembering about those days," Tanaka said.
Detroit got to Tanaka quickly, as Anthony Gose reached on a leadoff double and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly. But that flyout to left field began a streak during which Tanaka retired 18 of the 19 Tigers he faced, carrying him into the seventh inning.
"When he's hitting the mitt, he's really hard to hit. He had everything going," catcher Brian McCann said. "He had the cutter going, the sinker in, he had the split, obviously -- I feel like it's always there. He got a lot of early count outs, which I think is a big deal for him to pitch deep into ballgames."
The one lingering concern about Tanaka is whether he can remain healthy and effective for the Yankees deep into the season. For now, though, he's answered any other questions the Yankees might have had.
"He's the same as he was last year, and his stuff speaks for itself," McCann said. "Every time he takes the mound, he expects to win, and he expects to put up zeros. That's why he's a front-end guy."