Tanaka 'relieved' to get first game under his belt
Japanese star admits nerves in global spotlight; Yankees like what they see
TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka was greeted by a warm ovation as he made his first trip to the mound as a Yankee on Saturday afternoon. Two scoreless innings later, the touted right-hander exited to an even more enthusiastic reception.
Tanaka's debut was an international event; with the contest beamed live to Japan, observers jockeying for position inside George M. Steinbrenner Field were joined by a television audience that chose seeing Tanaka's 31 pitches over sleeping through the wee morning hours.
"I was nervous, but it was a really good nervous," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "It will probably be a little bit different the next time around, but at this point it's kind of hard to say."
The Yankees considered Tanaka's first matchup against big league hitters to be a success, as he scattered two singles and struck out three in the Yankees' 4-0 Grapefruit League victory over the Phillies. Manager Joe Girardi said that it was a big step to see Tanaka on the mound.
"It's the place where he's probably at peace, not having to answer questions," Girardi said. "He's able to do his work. I think it was important to get under his belt, and the next time will be a start."
Entering in relief for the fifth inning, Tanaka said that he was able to show off all seven of his pitches, including a splitter that has been rated as a world-class offering. Tanaka said that he was most pleased to not have walked anyone.
"Everything is new to me, so for today, I was just trying to locate my pitches where the catcher was holding the glove," said Tanaka, who signed a seven-year, $155 million contract in January.
Teamed with backstop Francisco Cervelli, Tanaka quickly got ahead of the first batter he faced, Darin Ruf, with two swinging strikes. Ruf then slapped a 94 mph fastball into center field for a clean single.
"It was a big league at-bat in Spring Training," Ruf said. "With all the hype coming in, I knew the whole world would be watching."
Tanaka then got Cody Asche and Cameron Rupp to hit routine fly balls to left fielder Brett Gardner. Tanaka worked the count full to Cesar Hernandez, striking him out swinging at a 94 mph fastball.
"I was encouraged by what I saw; how he handled it," Girardi said. "He got in the stretch, gave up an 0-2 hit, it didn't fester. He just went back to work. I thought that was good."
Tanaka has said that he wants to keep the same approach that he used last year for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, when he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, so it was important for him to use all of his pitches.
Counting those offerings on his fingers, Tanaka said that he threw two different fastballs, as well as a curve, slider, cutter, splitter and changeup. Cervelli caught Tanaka in the bullpen, but said that Saturday's effort looked more polished.
"This is better. This is game time," Cervelli said. "It's great. He's able to command, to throw on the corners and then throw in the dirt when we need it."
Back in action for the sixth inning, Tanaka had his cleanest sequence of the outing against leadoff hitter Ben Revere, getting ahead 0-2 before dropping in a biting splitter that fell off the table for a swinging strikeout.
"I played catch with him yesterday, and that split is dirty," said CC Sabathia, who started the game and threw two scoreless innings. "He showed it today."
Ronny Cedeno made contact for a soft one-out single to center field, but Tanaka fanned Domonic Brown with an 89 mph fastball up in the zone for the second out. Tanaka completed his outing by getting Kelly Dugan to fly out to Mason Williams in center field.
"I knew he had to be a good pitcher to get all that money," Brown said. "He definitely had a good outing. I want to face him again, maybe before the spring is over."
Girardi said that he has the date for Tanaka's next outing circled in his book, but declined to announce it at this time. Tanaka said that in that outing, he would like to "work on just a little adjustment to the pitch form so that I'm able to locate my pitches a little better."
Tanaka said that he doubted his friends and family members were watching back home in Japan, remarking that they were probably asleep. If so, they surely will have no difficulty getting up to speed on what Tanaka will remember as an important first day at the office.
"I'm relieved, just to be able to throw against the batters over here," Tanaka said.