MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Healthy Tanaka regaining his groove

Tough-luck right-hander tosses 7 strong innings vs. A's

Healthy Tanaka regaining his groove

OAKLAND -- Masahiro Tanaka has pitched in hard luck for most of this season, but on one matter there seems to be certainty. For the first time since 2014, when he opened his first season with a 12-1 record in his first 14 starts, the Japanese right-hander appears to be completely healthy.

Tanaka threw seven innings of one-run, five-hit ball in Saturday's 5-1 win over the A's at the Oakland Coliseum, effortlessly tossing 92 pitches.

The hard luck: He's 2-0 with a 3.24 ERA, and largely because of shallow run support, in seven of his nine starts he's failed to earn a decision.

The good news: "He feels good and I don't think he worries about his arm now," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said after the Yankees won their fourth in a row and climbed out of the cellar in the AL East for the first time since April 23. "For the better part of last year he'd have to monitor it just to be safe.

Tanaka flashes the leather

"When your body tells you you feel good, your spirits pick up and you can do what you're used to doing more. He feels good and hopefully it will continue that way."

Tanaka was diagnosed in 2014 with a partially torn ligament in his right elbow, missing most of the last three months of that season. He was on the disabled list last year for the entire month of May with a flexor tendon issue in his right forearm and after the season had a bone spur removed from that elbow.

During Spring Training, general manager Brian Cashman said the club had known about the bone spur before the Yankees signed him to a seven-year, $155 million contract and paid a $20 million posting fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka's Japanese League club.

Cashman also said that all of Tanaka's arm issues stemmed from that problem.

Tanaka said Saturday that his arm is no longer bothering him. Asked when he felt he had mentally and physically climbed over that hump, Tanaka spent a bit of time pondering the question.

"If you just look at this year, I think I've been throwing well from the start of Spring Training," he said through an interpreter. "As I got into the season, gradually I started feeling stronger. I had more stamina."

And now, nine starts into the season, the Yankees are ecstatic about Tanaka's progress as the lead starter for a rotation that is starting to click on all cylinders.

"We're happy where he is right now," manager Joe Girardi said. "There were some concerns going into Spring Training because we didn't know exactly where he was at. We took it a little bit slow, but I think he's answered all the questions."

There also has been the issue of making an adjustment from Japan, where starters work every six days instead of five like the Major Leagues. It's not a coincidence that Tanaka pitched well Saturday on six days of rest. The previous two starts on five days of spacing, Tanaka allowed 10 runs on 15 hits in 12 innings.

Tanaka escapes jam

"That's been a big part of it. That's a huge part of it," Rothschild said. "If you talk to those guys who have done it, it takes two or three years to adjust. It takes a while. He's still getting used to that."

The Yankees offense has helped matters for Tanaka by suddenly generating some run support. In his first six starts, the Yanks scored 15 runs and Tanaka allowed 11, leaving little margin for error.

But lately, Tanaka is enjoying an embarrassment of riches. The Yankees have scored 22 times in his last three starts and Saturday is the first time this season Tanaka and the Yankees have put it all together.

Regardless, in all nine of his starts, Tanaka gave the Yankees a chance to win and the Yanks won six of them.

As far as trying to give Tanaka that extra day of rest, Girardi said: "Sometimes you do have to. We did it for a lot of our guys last year. When you get in those 20-game-in-a-row stretches it's kind of hard. But [for Tanaka], sure it has a lot to do with [his problems]. It's part of his training."

This has been the measure of Tanaka's season: He threw eight innings of five-hit, shutout ball against the Orioles on May 5 in Baltimore, but the Yankees lost, 1-0, in the 10th inning.

Five days later in New York it was the polar opposite, when the Yankees defeated the Royals, 10-7. Tanaka gave up six runs on seven hits and left in the seventh inning with the Royals leading, 6-5. The Yanks came back for the win in the seventh and eighth against the usually reliable back end of the Kansas City bullpen.

In both the above games, Tanaka wasn't around to earn the decision. On Saturday, he was.

"It was nice to get him a lead," Girardi said. "It opened it up a little bit and allowed him to go to work."

But Tanaka's health is the big thing. Without it no matter how many runs are put up on the board not much else matters.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.