TAMPA, Fla. -- Remember all the questions and concerns about how Masahiro Tanaka would handle the transition from Japan to America? About how he'd deal with all the pressure and attention, much less the Major League lineups?
So far, the Yankees say, he's made all that look easy. Granted, it's only Spring Training. The regular season will bring challenges of its own. He'll have to face the grueling schedule and travel, not to mention the tougher competition every fifth day. But he's breezed through every challenge he's faced to this point.
"He just made it transition-less. It's not an issue for him. It's almost like it's more of an issue for us," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "I've really been surprised how he's hit the ground running in the States and has made the transition for us so much lesser than we expected. We talked about it about more than it's been."
That trend continued Sunday, when Tanaka worked through perhaps the best lineup he's seen all spring. The Braves brought most of their everyday players to George M. Steinbrenner Field. Tanaka said he recognized their names from watching Major League Baseball on TV back in Japan.
That didn't slow him down, however, as he struck out six and gave up only one run on three hits and two walks over 4 1/3 innings in a 7-4 victory. He ran up his pitch count to 74 quicker than he would have liked, but he was satisfied with the results.
"His stuff plays. He's got a way-above-average [split-finger fastball], above-average slider, can split both sides of the plate with his fastball, sinks it, cuts it. He's not a comfortable at-bat for anybody," Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. "He sets up hitters. He'll set up a pitch 0-2, set up the next pitch for what he wants to, strike them out on a 2-2 count. He really knows what he's doing out there."
McCann added that Tanaka also knows himself very well and understands his strengths and weaknesses. He's comfortable pitching backward if that's what gets hitters out. While acting manager Rob Thomson noted that Tanaka hit 92-94 mph with his fastball Sunday, Tanaka pointed out that he'll throw his secondary offerings more often than "regular pitchers."
He's also displaying more poise than some regular pitchers might, especially considering the amount of attention he receives from the media. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he could tell from the visiting dugout at Steinbrenner Field that Tanaka is used to pitching in big games. That almost makes it easy to forget Tanaka is only 25.
"I was impressed. He does a lot of good things," Gonzalez said. "I think he's going to be on the big stage in New York, but I don't think he's going to have any problem."
"It beyond surprises me," McCann added. "It just shows you the experience he has to be only 25 years old and to understand how to maneuver through a lineup is really impressive."
Tanaka is the only one who doesn't seem blown away by what he's done. As often as he speaks with the media, both American and Japanese, he generally steers those interviews toward the things he needs to do better.
Just about everyone has praised Tanaka's splitter, for example. McCann said Tanaka knows when to bury it in the dirt and when to leave it up in the strike zone, and the pitch left several Braves swinging and missing Sunday. He got Justin Upton to look at a called third strike with his splitter, and Ernesto Mejia whiffed on another to end the third inning. Tanaka, meanwhile, says his splitter is "not quite there" yet.
So, what has he been pleased with this spring?
"Just the fact that I'm here today, gradually building up my pitch counts without problems," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "That I'm pretty happy with."
The Yankees, meanwhile, are happy with what they've seen out of Tanaka; Cashman even compared Tanaka's seamless transition to that of Hideki Matsui, saying it feels like Tanaka has been with the club much longer than he has.
"Very comfortable. His teammates like him and he seems to have fun around here and seems to like his teammates," Thomson said. "I know that if it were me going to a foreign country, it would be tough to try to get involved with a group of guys on a fast basis. So he's done a nice job of that. He's really fit in well."
Fitting in during Spring Training and being a successful Major League starter are two different things, of course. But he's navigated his first month in the Majors well -- surprisingly well, even, to seemingly everyone but himself.
"So far, so good, I feel," Tanaka said, "but once the season starts you'll be flying into different cities, pitching under different weather conditions, climates, so I'll obviously be experiencing a lot of new things and learning a lot as we go through the season."