With personal future uncertain, Masahiro Tanaka saves New York Yankees' season

By Roger Rubin, The Sports Xchange  |  Oct. 9, 2017 at 10:36 AM
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NEW YORK -- Yankees manager Joe Girardi made some disastrous decisions early in New York's American League Division Series with the Cleveland Indians, most notably his pitching changes Friday in a Game 2 loss.

Still, he looks pretty smart for picking Masahiro Tanaka to pitch Game 3 on Sunday. The right-hander fired seven scoreless innings at the Indians to lay the foundation of a 1-0 win that kept the Yankees' season alive.

Tanaka may not have faced a tougher set of circumstances for a start. The Yankees had their backs to the wall. His manager was showered with lusty boos at introductions for his missteps in Game 2. And there remains the prospect that this would be Tanaka's final start for the Yankees.

Not one to show his emotions, Tanaka wore them on his sleeve. He allowed a one-out triple to Jason Kipnis in the fourth inning, then escaped with strikeouts of Jose Ramirez and Jay Bruce. He hollered and pounded his glove as he walked to the dugout.

"Probably be the biggest win that I have gotten since I came here," he said through an interpreter. "I came here to pitch in these type of games, and to be able to help the team win in these type of games. And in (the) 2015 (AL wild-card game), I went out there and I wasn't able to do that. But I'm just really glad that I was able to do that tonight."

Girardi said he expected the boos, even prepared his family to be ready for them. And he didn't even admit to feeling a measure of redemption for deciding to give staff ace Luis Severino an extra day of rest and use Tanaka -- at the end of his least successful season -- on Sunday. Tanaka delivered, and now Severino is lined up to pitch Game 4 on Monday and possibly get the series back to Cleveland for a decisive Game 5 on Wednesday.

"Everything you do is not going to be perfect. I'm always going to do my best ... but it's not always going to be perfect," Girardi said. "(Tanaka) is a player going out and doing what he's capable of doing. If we lose 3-1, I'm going to be questioned -- even if he pitches a really good game. So the success is what he did, not what I did."

Tanaka allowed three hits and one walk while striking out seven. Twice he got batters to hit into inning-ending double plays. His split-finger fastball was diving and getting hitters to swing and miss. Cleveland manager Terry Francona called Tanaka's effort "one of the better games we've seen all year."

The Yankees would like to see Tanaka turn in more performances like that in this postseason. If they do not, it might have been his final performance in the pinstripes.

When Tanaka came over from Japan before the 2014 season, he was signed to a seven-year deal for $155 million that includes an option for him to opt out and become a free agent after this season. He would get $67 million over the next three years if he does not opt for free agency.

In four regular seasons, he is 52-28 with a 3.56 ERA. Each of his first two seasons were shortened by injuries, including a small tear to the main ligament in his right elbow in his rookie year. This season he was inconsistent, finishing 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA.

Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Yu Darvish is the best pitcher certain to be a free agent in the coming offseason. Kansas City Royals left-hander Jason Vargas will get some attention, too. However, the list of starters who won't have options picked up is not especially impressive. Tanaka, 28, very likely would earn much more if he becomes a free agent. But he could lose a lot, too.

The Yankees have become young and dynamic over the past two seasons. A decision to leave New York might mean departing from a team with an excellent chance to win a World Series. He has the backing of an excellent bullpen in which a number of the relievers are signed or controlled beyond next season. Plus he seems to enjoy the major market spotlight.

Tanaka certainly reveled in it on Sunday night. He carved out a reputation for pitching well in the biggest games while he played in Japan. In the 2015 wild-card game loss to the Houston Astros, his five innings of two-run ball were not going to be a match for the six scoreless from Dallas Keuchel. But in his second truly big game, Tanaka backed the hype.

"As a player, those are the moments that you want to go in there and shine the most, and you really, actually, look forward to these type of games," he said. "I think being able to sort of positively look at those games might be the reason why I'm able to go out there and do what I did today."

The Yankees hope to see it at least one more time.

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