NEW YORK — Masahiro Tanaka will either become the hero or the fall-guy by Sunday night. In New York, and with a contract that gives you the ability to opt out, there isn’t much in-between.
So, Tanaka, who was once thought to be the answer to the 2015 question, has a chance that few life or in baseball get come Sunday night when he faces the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the ALDS. It will be Tanaka’s first postseason start since the AL Wild Card game two years ago, and while he says he’s learned from that start, it appears to be the Indians who are still trying to learn about him.
“I feel like I’ve learned from that actual game from 2015,” Tanaka said on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, ahead of the third game of the series. “Not just that, but some of the big games that I needed to pitch that I had the opportunity to pitch this season and, also just by observing the games, these postseason games, you get a sense of what needs to be done. So, yes, I’m pretty prepared to go into the game.”
However what exactly it is that “needs to be done” isn’t quite clear.
What is clear is that Tanaka is making what could be his final start in the pinstripes. The Yankees are on the ropes and his arm can help get them back into the middle of the ring. The same pitcher who many said ruined the Yankees season from the start is not the ace, but has the ability to pitch like one.
Manager Joe Girardi had the choice to start ace Luis Severino, but there’s no telling what version of the him would appear on the mound on Sunday night. Instead, Girardi is banking on the version of Tanaka that throws devastating breaking pitches that dart and dive all over the zone, and more importantly, miss bats to show up when it matters the most.
“We need him to pitch like he pitched the other day,” Girardi said., referring to his Sept. 30 start against the Toronto Blue Jays. “I think he had 15 strikeouts in the game. This is a team that’s going to grind out at-bats, and he needs to grind out at-bats with them.”
Indians manager Terry Francona is hoping his team doesn’t whiff 15 times, but also recognizes it might not be easy to prevent guys from swinging at those breaking pitches.
“His last start was up. Very up. He’s been a little inconsistent this year, mostly in the first half. Second half, he’s been much better and his last start was really good,” Francona said. “When he has power to his pitches, but also — and I don’t know if he refers to it as a split, change, whatever you want to call it. But at times it can be a huge weapon for him.
“So we’re going to have, one, you gauge how a guy is throwing. Is he pounding the zone with it? Is it in and out of the zone? And then either hit a mistake or lay off the ones that are down and out of the zone.”