MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Tanaka fulfilling huge expectations

After battling health issues the past two years, righty leads Yanks with 12 wins

Tanaka fulfilling huge expectations

NEW YORK -- Though Masahiro Tanaka doesn't nearly have the zip on the ball exhibited in the early part of his Major League career, he has remained injury-free and quietly putting together an outstanding season.

Working into the seventh inning of Monday's crucial 5-3 Labor Day win over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium, Tanaka was knocked around a little bit, but he displayed the requisite toughness of a right-hander who has pitched seven seasons in Japan and the last three with the Yankees.

Tanaka is 12-4 with a 3.11 ERA, and when you consider that he's pitching in the American League East, and has been slammed with 12 no-decisions this year, his season could have been that much better.

The Yanks have scored just 72 runs for Tanaka in his 28 starts.

"He's pitched great," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Any time you have a three ERA in the AL East, you've pitched very well. He's given us a chance to win a lot of games."

To that point, the Yanks have won 20 of the 28 games Tanaka has started, including the past six in row. He's 5-0 since losing for the last time against the Mets, when he was shelled in a 7-1 loss at Citi Field on Aug. 2.

With their starting rotation narrowed to veterans Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, rookie Luis Cessa and a fifth starter Girardi called "Johnny Wholestaff," the Yankees don't have much margin for error as they attempt to hang in there for an AL Wild Card spot.

Girardi obviously was kidding when asked what his options are to replace the injured Chad Green against the Blue Jays on Wednesday.

"Johnny and Johnny," the manager said. "It could be [Bryan] Mitchell. That hasn't been our plan. There's just some things we've got to talk about and see where we are after Tuesday night."

Green was diagnosed with a sprained right ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon after being forced to leave during the second inning of Friday's 8-0 loss to the Orioles. He's out for the remainder of the season.

That makes every Tanaka outing even more important to the now 71-65 Yanks, who are on this concerted stretch run. They only trail first-place Toronto by 5 1/2 games in the division race with 26 games left, and have two games of great importance against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium the next two nights.

Anything can still happen.

"At the end of the day, you want to see your team win," Tanaka said through his interpreter, Shingo Horie, a former television network employee in Japan. "For me, that's the most important thing. So I don't care so much about the personal numbers. I just care that I'm able to do that, to help us win."

The fact is, that this is the first of rhe three years since signing a seven-year, $155 million contract on Jan. 22, 2014, that Tanaka has remained healthy for just about the entire season. And there's a lot to be said for that.

The Yankees also paid a $20 million positing fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka's Japanese club, after signing him to the mega deal that gives him opt-out rights after the 2017 season.

Tanaka and the Yanks have had to cope with long stints on the disabled list because of ligament problems in his right elbow two years ago, and a flexor tendon strain in his right forearm last season. After pitching and losing the AL Wild Card Game to Houston last season, Tanaka underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from the elbow, and that's when the healing and the progression to where he is now began.

"I think, ultimately, you have to be able to get up on the mound in order to put up any kind of numbers," Tanaka said. "That said, my success this year should be attributed to just staying healthy and being able to go out when it's my turn and pitch."

The work numbers prove it. Tanaka's 28 starts and 179 1/3 innings are by far his best in the Major Leagues. When he last pitched for Rakuten in 2013, he made 27 starts and logged 212 innings. That season, Tanaka was an ungodly 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, paving his way toward that huge Yankees contract.

On Monday, the Blue Jays seemed to size Tanaka up early, scoring a run before the third batter of the game. But he pitched out of the inning without any further damage.

Though the Blue Jays continued to hit Tanaka hard, Jose Bautista was thrown out at the plate in the first inning, Melvin Upton Jr., trying to steal second in the fourth, and Bautista again going from first to third on a single to end the fifth. Right fielder Aaron Judge also came scampering in to make a diving catch in front of him with a runner on second to end the second.

Yankees get the out at home

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

Girardi said that Tanaka didn't have his good slider, but Tanaka was even more expansive about the problems.

Judge's catch at the wall

"I don't think it was just the slider. I think it was everything, pretty much," Tanaka said. "I felt like I was all over the place. But we came back and scored some runs. There were good defensive plays as well. I think that saved me and that's why we have the win today."

This is what the Yankees expected Tanaka to do, of course, when they signed him. And finally, he is fulfilling the fruits of those expectations.

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.