Escaping a fifth-inning jam let Tanaka go the distance

Escaping a fifth-inning jam let Tanaka go the distance

TORONTO -- In what Masahiro Tanaka said was one of the most important games in which he has ever held a ball, distance was on his mind, and he completed what he started. The key was a fifth-inning sequence in which he held the potent Blue Jays lineup to a minimum amount of damage.

Tanaka's suddenly spotty command put him in trouble, as he loaded the bases with none out -- which forced him to stare in toward Josh Donaldson. Tanaka rose to the challenge, retiring the slugger on a sacrifice fly that began a string of 11 straight outs in a complete-game, 4-1 victory over Toronto, pushing the Yankees' AL East lead to 1 1/2 games over the Blue Jays.

"Absolutely, it has to be one of the best wins," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "It was a really good win for the team and for myself, as well."

Staked to a 1-0 lead by Carlos Beltran's first-inning homer, Tanaka started the fifth with a four-pitch walk to Ryan Goins, surrendered an 0-1 single to Ben Revere and walked Troy Tulowitzki on four pitches, drawing pitching coach Larry Rothschild to the mound.

"That was the inning where I just couldn't get the strikes going," Tanaka said. "It was ball one, ball two. But I was hanging in there, battling. My thought was, keep it to the minimum."

Donaldson looked at a sinker and a fastball out of the strike zone, setting up a 2-0 cookie that invited loud contact. Tanaka said he knew the drive would stay in the park, but also that it was plenty deep enough to allow Goins to tie the game. Clamping further damage was the priority.

Donaldson's sac fly

"No place to go," catcher John Ryan Murphy said. "He threw a decent slider there and Donaldson just missed hitting it a long way. That's just how the game goes sometimes."

Jose Bautista waved at a splitter, striking out in a four-pitch at-bat, and Tanaka went back to that trademark pitch on a 2-1 count to Edwin Encarnacion. A healthy cut produced just a popup that landed in the glove of second baseman Stephen Drew, ending an inning in which Tanaka threw just eight of 21 pitches for strikes.

"That was the best chance we had," Jays catcher Dioner Navarro said. "We had to capitalize, and we fell short. He has out pitches. He threw a great game."

The confidence boost helped Tanaka as he pursued his fourth career complete game and first of the season. He threw 112 pitches to save a bullpen that was without the services of both Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Encarnacion's eighth-inning single was the only hit the rest of the way.

"We kept them off balance, kept mixing his stuff throughout the game," Murphy said. "We tried to throw a lot of fastballs early in the game so his offspeed would play a little bit better later in the game. It worked."

Murphy said he challenged Tanaka to finish it off in the ninth, telling him that it was his game and no one else's. Tanaka responded to that, rewarding the Yanks with a clean ninth and a boisterous celebration after the final out.

"My mindset was that if they would like me to go [the distance], I would like to go," Tanaka said. "I wanted to go out there. I was actually a little bit pumped up and happy that I was allowed to go to the ninth inning."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.