Confidence not an issue for Tanaka
Over first two starts, Japanese righty hasn't been afraid to challenge hitters
NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka had just signed with the Yankees when an iPad was delivered to catcher Brian McCann's home. Thus began his personal study of another of his new teammates. Right there at the start, one thing stuck out.
"That splitter," McCann said, "is as good as you'll see."
There were other things McCann liked. For instance, he loved Tanaka's confidence and how he was unafraid to challenge hitters. The Yankees knew there might be an adjustment period, a time when Tanaka might even be timid about throwing strikes as he learned day by day that his stuff would be plenty good enough to succeed in the United States.
As good as Yu Darvish has been, there was a stretch his rookie season when he either couldn't -- or more likely, wouldn't -- throw the ball in the strike zone. His confidence seemed to evaporate almost overnight.
Only a couple of tough-love talks with Rangers manager Ron Washington got the message instilled that Darvish had to trust his stuff. Otherwise, he had no chance of succeeding.
"It's good enough," Washington said. "Believe me, it's good enough. We just have to convince him of that."
Darvish has gotten that message and has thrown the ball about as well as almost anyone the last season and a half or so.
Perhaps that's the best thing about Tanaka's first two starts with the Yankees. The confidence McCann saw in Tanaka on those videos has accompanied him to the mound in the United States.
And that's what was impressive about Tanaka's first Yankee Stadium start on Wednesday night in a game New York would lose, 5-4, to the Orioles. He struggled in the first three innings. He did not get a victory and said he needed to get better.
But he showed poise and electric stuff in sailing through the final four innings of a solid seven-inning, three-run, 10-strikeout start.
The Yankees ended up losing when their overhauled bullpen blinked in the ninth inning. There are going to be games like this with closer David Robertson on the disabled list and manager Joe Girardi piecing his lineups together a day at a time.
With Tanaka, though, there were mostly positives, beginning with confidence and pure stuff. He threw 101 pitches, 71 of them for strikes. That number tells you he's not afraid, that he thinks the weapons that worked for him in Japan will work for him here.
"He's got good stuff," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who struck out twice and singled against Tanaka. "You can't deny that. He's a strike-thrower, but we had good at-bats and we fought him."
Here's the number that'll dazzle you: Tanaka got 22 swings and misses on those 101 pitches. Most of those were on the split-finger pitch McCann watched dip wickedly at home plate in those videos.
"He's got all the pitches to be a top-of-the-rotation [starter]," McCann said. "He can pitch to all quadrants of the plate. He can elevate you. He can change eye levels. Slider. Split. Both sides."
Tanaka hung a slider that rookie third baseman Jonathan Schoop hit out of the park for three runs in the second inning, and he needed 58 pitches just to get through three innings.
"I think he has to adjust to us also," Jones said. "We're different hitters over here. You can't just try to groove anything to us. We hit it. We hack up here in MLB."
After the first two innings, Tanaka allowed only two more runners to reach scoring position, and he got seven of his last 15 outs on strikeouts. So in both his starts, he has had tough beginnings, and then rallied to finish strong.
"I think throughout the game I was able to battle," Tanaka said. "But with two runners on and a home run to the ninth batter, that I can't do."
He got outs with almost everything. He struck out Jones on a 94-mph fastball in the first inning and a splitter in the third. Nelson Cruz whiffed on a curve in the second and a splitter in the third. Chris Davis looked at a 93-mph fastball for the second out in the fifth, then Tanaka got Matt Wieters on a splitter to end the frame.
"I thought he battled out of some tough jams," Girardi said. "I thought he made some pitches when he had to. Maybe the seventh inning was his best inning. But I thought he threw the ball OK."
While Tanaka clearly hasn't been perfect, there have been enough positives to believe he's everything the Yankees hoped he'd be. His 18 strikeouts are second in the Majors.
"Good," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "As advertised, as paid for. He's going to be a great contributor here. You feel fortunate any time you can end up with a W with him on the mound. He's impressive."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.