TAMPA, Fla. -- It is shaping up to be a low-stress spring for Masahiro Tanaka, who made his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday without any of the lingering concerns that trailed him last year. The right-hander says he is "on the right path," as each start simply moves him closer to Opening Day.
Though Tanaka sent his first pitch sailing over Ian Kinsler's head, he settled in to stifle the Tigers, hurling two scoreless, hitless innings in the Yankees' 9-5 victory at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Tanaka induced four ground balls and struck out two on diving splitters, throwing 16 of 25 pitches for strikes.
"I liked everything except the very first pitch," Tanaka said through an interpreter, laughing. "I'm not really sure [what happened]. … I think right now I'm on the right path as far as my body goes. It's in good shape. So far, it's been good, I think."
Last spring, Tanaka's progress was stalled as he recovered from arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow, but there are no such restrictions as he looks to improve upon a season in which he set career highs in wins (14), innings (199 2/3), starts (31), strikeouts (165) and quality starts (19).
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said that Tanaka now has the freedom to prepare as he sees fit.
"If we need to hold him back, we can do that, but he can work on the things he needs to work on and not worry about all the speculation of where his stuff is and [if there] is something wrong," Rothschild said. "He can have a peaceful spring and in his mind, get ready."
Tanaka said that he had some concerns prior to Tuesday's start because his splitter seemed "awfully bad" in the bullpen, but he regained his feel once there was a batter in the box. Tanaka said that he wanted to throw as many different types of pitches as possible in the outing, and departed feeling like he accomplished that goal.
"The split was really good today and the slider [was too]," catcher Gary Sanchez said through an interpreter. "The location of the fastball was a little off today, but it's the first start of the spring. I know he can locate better, especially the fastball."
Bench coach Rob Thomson mentioned that Tanaka's velocity appeared to be up a few ticks, but Rothschild said he wasn't sure about that.
"Whatever the velocity is, I don't know that it's that far off at any point in time since he's been here," Rothschild said. "You're talking about a tick at times. A lot has been made out of it, but he's not a velocity guy. He's a pitcher. He knows what to do when he's got the ball in his hand. That's what we expect."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. 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.