In the top of the sixth inning of the Yankees' 3-1 win over the Red Sox on Sunday night, the Yankees' ace found himself staring down a two-out full count against David Ortiz. Catcher Austin Romine wanted a splitter, but Tanaka had other plans.
The right-hander shook off Romine's suggestion. Tanaka wanted to throw a fastball, and Romine didn't argue. Tanaka reached back and put everything he could into one pitch. The result was a 95-mph fastball, about three mph faster than his average four-seamer. Ortiz put a charge into it, launching the ball deep into center field, but Jacoby Ellsbury corralled the long fly to end the inning.
It was the last pitch that Tanaka threw Sunday night, and given the circumstances, Romine ranked it among his best.
"He was not scared. He never is scared," Romine said. "He doesn't pitch that way. He knows what he has and he goes after people. To see him say, 'No, I want to throw a fastball to Ortiz' and not be afraid, that was the biggest thing I could see from him."
Tanaka's night went about as well as his gamble against the American League's leader in OPS and extra-base hits. He exited after the sixth having allowed just one run on three hits while striking out seven and walking one. The outing was a recovery of sorts for Tanaka, who allowed season highs in hits (10) and runs (seven) in his last start before the All-Star break.
More than just for Tanaka though, Sunday's win was a recovery for the Yankees as a whole, who, after losing their first two games coming out of the break, were in a self-declared state of emergency; manager Joe Girardi even went as far as calling Sunday's game possibly the most important July game in recent memory.
Girardi's words could not be denied. But to Tanaka, the urgency of the night was more of a tacit agreement acknowledged by the players.
"We didn't necessarily have a meeting and talk about how important tonight's game was, but I think everybody understood how important we needed to win today," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I think everybody understands how important today's win was."
To Romine, Sunday's win was inevitable given the events. In his mind, there's a checklist of sorts that if the Yankees check every box will always lead to victory. Step one comes from the pitcher, and it runs contrary to nearly everything pitchers have been told for 150 years.
"We knew we had the bullpen, so we just needed five, six strong [innings]," Romine said. "He did it. He gave us exactly what we need. When you write up a win for us, this is exactly what we need -- some timely hitting, a guy going five, six innings and then get the big three coming out. We're going to win those games."
Obviously, there's a bit of an adjustment in going from aiming to throw nine innings to settling for a solid six. Although he threw only 87 pitches, Tanaka said he could have pitched the seventh inning, too.