Though improving, Tanaka sets sights higher

Three solo home runs only damage against righty as Yanks sweep O's

Though improving, Tanaka sets sights higher

NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka knows when he's about to have a good day. It starts in the bullpen, where his breaking balls don't fight him and he's able to put pitches where he wants to. His catcher notices it, too.

"I could see it from the bullpen," catcher John Ryan Murphy said. "Before the game, you can tell when a guy's on."

Tanaka had that feeling the morning of Thursday's 9-3 Yankees win over the Orioles, during which he showed flashes of dominance over his 7 2/3 innings, benefiting from an early lead and making sure it didn't go to waste. Tanaka held the Orioles to three runs on five hits as the Yankees capped a three-game sweep.

It was the latest step forward for Tanaka, who missed much of last season with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm and spent time on the disabled list this year with right wrist tendinitis and a right forearm strain. Following a blip at the end of June, he has posted a 3.05 ERA in three July starts and said he's getting closer to his pre-injury form.

"Gradually," Tanaka said. "The past three games, it's been gradually getting better."

Tanaka snares a liner

Tanaka started 18 of his 28 opposing batters with a strike, putting the O's lineup on the defensive all afternoon. The right-hander's counts allowed him to play with his two strikeout pitches -- his signature dipping splitter and a new slider -- without fear of allowing free passes. He struck out seven Orioles without allowing a base on balls.

"He was [throwing] strike one all day long," Murphy said. "I think we used his slider enough to keep them off the splitter, and vice versa."

As Tanaka progresses, he's still finding it difficult to keep the ball in the yard. Three home runs marred what was otherwise one of Tanaka's best starts in more than a month.

Davis' solo home run

Chris Davis went deep in the second inning, sending a line drive over the right-center-field wall. Tanaka recovered smoothly, retiring the next eight Orioles before Davis doubled in the fourth inning. Two more homers in the eighth inning, first from J.J. Hardy and then Manny Machado, knocked Tanaka out of the game.

"Just a mistake on my side," Tanaka said. "You want to go out of the game strong, but I gave up those two home runs."

Even when he pitches well, home runs remain an issue for Tanaka. He's allowed 15 homers across 81 2/3 innings this season, the same total he gave up in 136 1/3 innings last season.

Girardi on sweep over Baltimore

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he wasn't concerned. As long as Tanaka keeps runners off the bases and limits the opposition to solo homers, Girardi said, the right-hander can afford to make a mistake or two. And maybe if he hadn't taken the mound with such a big lead, Tanaka would've pitched differently and been less aggressive.

That's not quite how Tanaka sees it. In his eyes, he's still working toward returning to form as the pitcher who dominated for much of 2014.

"The goal is to get much better," Tanaka said.

Alden Woods is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.