Yankees Magazine: Weathering the storm

Mired in the worst slump of his career, Masahiro Tanaka found his groove in a marquee matchup that enthralled baseball fans around the world

Yankees Magazine: Weathering the storm

There are no "must-win" games in June, but the Yankees' matchup with the Texas Rangers on June 23 came pretty close. After a brutal 1-6 road trip, the Yankees opened up a six-game homestand by dropping two of three to the Angels - a 5-1 lead in the rubber game evaporating into a 10-5 loss. In the blink of an eye, a cushy four-game division lead had vanished.

As badly as the Yankees needed to stop the bleeding, Masahiro Tanaka had his own wounds to tend to. A model of consistency over his first three seasons in pinstripes, Tanaka had been a casualty of a league-wide home run bonanza -- an epidemic, if you ask pitchers -- in the first half of 2017, giving up the longball at nearly twice his normal rate. Not surprisingly, the results were calamitous: Over his previous seven starts, he had gone 0-6 with an 8.91 ERA.

Tanaka was frustrated and perplexed. Physically, he felt fine, yet his command had disappeared. Desperate to get back on track, Tanaka would have to face a potent Rangers lineup that had homered in 16 consecutive games, including four times the day before. The No. 9 hitter, Joey Gallo, entered the game batting below .200 with 19 home runs.

Adding to the atmospheric pressure was the nature of the pitching matchup. Tanaka and the Rangers' Yu Darvish are two of the greatest pitchers in Japanese baseball history. Since Tanaka's arrival in New York in 2014, fans on both sides of the Pacific anticipated seeing the two aces face off head to head in the majors. It hadn't happened -- until June 23.

It was the perfect storm of events, with the potential for disaster. But if Tanaka could somehow rediscover whatever was missing, he could turn the tide in this gloomy season.

What ensued was remarkable, from the first pitch to the last. It was one of those Yankee Stadium nights when, afterward, you wanted to stay in the stands and soak up the memory.

It got off to a soggy start.

***

Japan is 13 hours ahead of New York, so the 1-hour, 42-minute rain delay prior to first pitch worked out well for those who were eating their Saturday morning rice and miso soup or groggily recuperating from too much sake after work on Friday. As Tanaka warmed up to Japanese girl group Momoiro Clover Z's "Always a Challenger" shortly before 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, baseball fans across the Land of the Rising Sun tuned in to the nationally televised broadcast.

"This was like a dream-come-true matchup for Japanese fans," said Anri Uechi, a correspondent for Kyodo News who began covering Nippon Professional Baseball in 2006 and was dispatched to New York in January 2016 to chronicle Tanaka's every move. "They are still big names in Japan, and not just among baseball fans. People felt like, 'Finally, this is happening.'"

Uechi also noted how in Japan and throughout Asia, there is a long-held custom of showing deep respect for someone who is older than you. Darvish, who turns 31 on Aug. 16, is two years older than Tanaka, and has served as something of a beacon for the Yankees' right-hander. When Tanaka turned pro in 2007, winning Pacific League Rookie of the Year honors as an 18-year-old, he finished second in all of Nippon Professional Baseball with 196 strikeouts. Darvish struck out 210, winning the Sawamura Award, which is given to the top starting pitcher in NPB each year if he meets certain criteria. (Some years, no award is given out.)

Darvish -- who helped pitch the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to their first Japan Series title in 2006 under manager and former Yankees minor league skipper Trey Hillman -- won his first matchup against Tanaka on Sept. 19, 2007, and took a no-decision one week later in a rematch that the Fighters also won, 2-1.

Despite pitching for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who play in Sendai on the main island of Honshu, Tanaka was embraced by opposing fans in Hokkaido -- Japan's northernmost island -- where he starred for Komadai Tomakomai High School. After a win in the Sapporo Dome early in the 2008 season, the beloved Tanaka was spurred on by cheering Fighters fans to do the postgame "Hero Interview" on the field -- an unprecedented honor for a visiting player.

While Tanaka and Darvish did not go head to head in 2008, they did become teammates for the first time, helping the Japanese national team reach the semifinals of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Seven months later, they celebrated together as members of Japan's 2009 World Baseball Classic championship team.

Tanaka took a step forward in 2009, winning Pacific League Pitcher of the Month honors in April and again in August, when he bested Darvish for the first time in three meetings. When their teams met that October to determine the Pacific League champion, the Nippon Ham Fighters won, 4 games to 1; Tanaka pitched a complete game in Rakuten's lone victory in the series.

"I probably wouldn't call him a rival because that has to come from both ways," Tanaka said recently through his translator, Shingo Horie. "You have to have that same sort of 'rivaling' feeling toward each other, and I'm not sure if Darvish has that. I think it's probably more of a friendship-type of a relationship that I have with him."

Their legends had already been formed by 2011, but Tanaka and Darvish cemented their place in Japanese baseball history that season. In their final NPB head-to-head matchup on July 20, Tanaka scattered five hits over eight innings in a 3-1 loss; Darvish went the distance, allowing just four hits. Darvish finished the season with career bests in wins (18), strikeouts (276; a single-season Pacific League record) and ERA (1.44; his fifth straight season under 2.00). But it was Tanaka who earned the Sawamura Award after going 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA -- the second-lowest mark in Pacific League history.

In December following that season to remember, Darvish announced his intention to join the major leagues. Two years later, after netting a second Sawamura Award in 2013 with a perfect 24-0 season and leading Rakuten to its first Japan Series title, Tanaka would follow.

***

At 5-7 with a 6.34 ERA, Tanaka wasn't just struggling in 2017. He was in the midst of the worst stretch of his career. After picking up the Yankees so many times over three-plus seasons -- including five straight wins before the funk -- his teammates were now hoisting him up, never wavering in their belief that he would eventually snap out of it.

"You could feel that they were 100 percent supportive," Tanaka said of his teammates and coaches. "You try to feed off that, too. There's that whole support from the team that gives you more motivation to just keep on fighting and try to get through the tough times."

A positive person by nature, Tanaka later admitted that the doubts started to creep in.

"In that moment, when you're trying to get out of that hole, you're just beating yourself up trying to get out of it," he said. "Looking back, I think there was a time that the confidence was wavering a little bit. Some negative thoughts come in, and it gets magnified because of the type of struggle that you're going through. But you fight and you try to eliminate those negative thoughts, and so that's kind of the struggle that goes on during those times."

The first inning, in particular, had been an utter disaster. After allowing just four first-inning earned runs in 31 starts in 2016, he had given up 16 first-inning earned runs in 14 starts prior to the June 23 matchup against Texas. If he was going to turn things around, he needed to start right away.

Tanaka's scoreless outing

Tanaka set down the first batter, Shin-Soo Choo, on three sharp pitches: slider, splitter, fastball. Elvis Andrus drilled Tanaka's next offering up the middle for a single, but after Nomar Mazara struck out, Andrus was caught stealing.

Yankees fans exhaled and settled in for an exquisite display of pitching. Darvish, having another All-Star season, was also hungry for a win after a start against Seattle in which he gave up a season-high five runs.

"I'd imagine he'd be pretty pumped up for tonight but also be able to control his emotions, and see past the matchup, and know that it's a game for us to win and try to get on the right track," designated hitter Mike Napoli said before the game. "They're big-time celebrities over there, so I think it's going to be really cool for Japan."

Darvish gave up a leadoff single to Brett Gardner, then didn't allow another hit until the fifth, when Gary Sanchez nearly took his head off with a liner up the middle.

In the top of the sixth, the game still scoreless, Tanaka retired his ninth straight batter, Napoli, for the first out of the inning. He was cruising, but Sanchez sensed storm clouds approaching. With a 1-1 count on Gallo, Sanchez motioned to his pitcher to pump the brakes lest he ruin this masterpiece by serving up a dinger.

Sanchez set up on the far outside corner, even nodding his catcher's mask toward the vacant right-handed batter's box. But as raindrops began to fall for the first time all game, Tanaka missed badly with his next pitch. It traveled over the heart of the plate, coming in belt-high to the slugging young first baseman.

Gallo swung and missed. But it was so far from where Sanchez had expected it that the catcher ducked his head, barely getting his glove up in time to deflect the errant pitch to the backstop. He grabbed a fresh ball from home plate umpire Dan Iassogna and hand-delivered it to Tanaka, putting a calming hand on his batterymate's shoulder as they regrouped on the mound.

Tanaka ended up striking Gallo out, then made an impressive defensive play to retire Choo at first base unassisted. As the skies opened up and many of the 39,602 fans in attendance sought cover, those watching on TV reached for the popcorn. This was getting good: Through six scoreless innings, Tanaka (75 pitches) and Darvish (73 pitches) had each faced 19 batters, allowing two hits and recording seven strikeouts.

Tanaka's athletic play

***

After striking out the side in the seventh -- including his second strikeout of Aaron Judge, on a sequence that included a 65-mph curveball followed immediately by a 95-mph fastball -- Darvish left the game, citing tightness in his triceps. He finished with 10 K's and no walks on 88 pitches.

Tanaka threw 100 pitches over eight strong scoreless innings, delivering first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 27 batters he faced. It was, by a good margin, his best outing since a 3-0 shutout at Fenway Park on April 27 against Chris Sale and the Red Sox. In the 15th meeting of two Japanese pitchers in the majors, it was the first time neither yielded a run. In fact, according to baseball writer and researcher Katie Sharp, it was just the second major league game in the last 100 years in which each starter (regardless of birthplace) allowed zero runs, three or fewer hits and had at least nine strikeouts.

"The game was viewed as a point of national pride in Japan," said KDN Global Sports Management president Don Nomura, who, along with Yankees assistant general manager Jean Afterman, was instrumental in bringing Hideo Nomo and other players to the majors from Japan. "Fans cheered for both pitchers, so the outcome was so perfect for the Japanese people -- to see Darvish and Tanaka finish equally, showing their best."

According to MLB vice president, Asia-Pacific, Jim Small, the 2.2 average rating on national broadcast partner NHK, which reaches more than 20 million households in Japan, was more than twice the normal average.

"Japanese fans still follow both Tanaka and Darvish closely, so it's no surprise to see good numbers when they pitch against each other," Small said. "Those numbers were also helped by the fact that it was Saturday morning, and they both pitched terrifically."

Former Yankees slugger and 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui now calls New York home, but the Japanese legend happened to be in his native land the day of the matchup. Like so many others on that Saturday morning, he was glued to the TV.

"It definitely became a bigger story after they pitched because they both pitched so well," Matsui said. "It was only the second time in 100 years that both pitchers had pitched that well. So, I think that the Japanese fans were happy because there is pride in seeing two fellow countrymen pitch so well in the major leagues."

***

After going toe to toe all night, it was fitting that it should be Toe who ended it.

The Rangers scratched across a run against Aroldis Chapman in the ninth on a single, a hit by pitch and a passed ball to take a 1-0 lead. But Brett Gardner countered with a dramatic one-out home run off closer Matt Bush in the bottom of the ninth.

After Chasen Shreve relieved Chad Green and worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Ronald Torreyes came up in the bottom of the frame with two outs and runners on the corners. "Toe" had made several dazzling plays at third base in the game but was 0-for-3 at the plate until he stroked a 1-0 fastball to center field, spreading his arms wide as he ran to first base with the game-winning hit.

The Yankees had the win they needed, and Tanaka seemed to have rediscovered the feeling that had eluded him for more than a month. After surrendering 15 homers over his previous seven starts, he began a streak of three starts -- all Yankees wins -- in which he didn't allow any.

"It's starting to come back, and you feel better out there on the mound," Tanaka said. "You can't really feel too safe about it, though; the season's going to go on. You just try to go out there every time and be consistent in what you're doing."

At his locker immediately following the 2-1 win over Texas, Tanaka called it "a team effort," crediting his catcher and the Yankees' defense and his teammates' clutch hitting for the victory. He joked about not knowing who was more popular in Japan, him or Darvish, but said he was happy to give fans back home a good performance.

And while many, including Tanaka himself, surmised that the matchup against Darvish might have provided extra motivation, one person with inside knowledge didn't seem to think that was the case.

"It was just time, you know?" said Sanchez. "He had been working on his pitches and his delivery for a while, and I think everything just came together. It's kind of simple: locating pitches. Executing pitches is the key for him.

"As baseball players, we all go through slumps. It could be early in the season, it could be in the middle of the season, it could be at the end. To me, I feel that it's better if it happens early because now we're most likely going to see more consistency from him in the second half."

If that's true, there's reason to think that there could be many more memorable games in store down the stretch. A confident, consistent Tanaka could be a ray of light in the Bronx, rain or shine. But bring a poncho just in case. Even if it starts to pour, Tanaka's going to battle through it.

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.