Why and how Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka was himself again … finally

ANAHEIM — Again and again, the targets that Yankees catcher Austin Romine kept giving to pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on Monday night were so low that his mitt seemed to be scraping the batter’s-box dirt.

Romine’s setups probably had at least a little something to do with the Yankees ace finally pitching a good game again because Tanaka’s splitter consistently was diving right there to the mitt throughout a no-decision in which he deserved a victory.

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“Yeah, he’s effective in the bottom of the zone,” Romine said after a post-game shower that followed a 5-3 Yankees win over the Los Angeles Angels. “You’ve got a splitter pitcher with a two-seam (fastball), and both pitches are moving down. His slider that has been showing up recently in the middle of the zone. I wanted him to focus on down in the zone. I wanted to give him a good target.”

Maybe the extra day that Tanaka had between this start and his previous one last Tuesday against Boston also helped sparked a rebound from a stretch in which he was terrible four times in five starts from May 14 to June 6.

Maybe just having Romine back there played a role, too. Starting catcher Gary Sanchez is a way bigger threat at the plate, but not as accomplished at calling games as his more-veteran backup at this point.

More than anything though, Tanaka finally figured things out in his latest between-starts work.

Whether it was one secret sauce or more, Tanaka reverted to his ace form, and that was the biggest development of a night in which rookie phenom Aaron Judge was the hero yet again with a two-run, tie-breaking homer in the eighth inning.

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This was reminiscent of the old Tanaka holding the Mike Trout-less Angels to three runs, one earned, on four hits over 6 2/3 strong innings.

“That was encouraging,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We have to build off this to make sure that he can put them back to back to back … so he gets that feeling that everything is right.

“For the most part, I thought everything was right tonight.”

Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun hit Tanaka’s third pitch of the night over the wall in right-center to a quick 1-0 lead with one out in the first, but that was no omen of more struggles.

After the homer, Tanaka walked Albert Pujols on four pitches, then he settled in and set down 16 of the next 17 Angels.

“He bore down and he didn’t let it tumble into a ‘Here we go again,'” Romine said. “I think he said, ‘No, I’m not going to let this happen again.’ He started finishing his pitches with a little more purpose.”

After the first, Tanaka’s only tough innings were the sixth and seventh.

With the Yanks up 2-1, Calhoun walked with one out in the Angels sixth and Yunel Escobar doubled to right-center with two down to put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position, but the threat ended when Luis Valbuena grounded a first-pitch Tanaka splitter to first baseman Chris Carter for an easy out.

The next inning, third baseman Chase Headley’s 11th error of the season on a one-out grounder led to two unearned runs and tie game when Danny Espinosa hit an RBI single to right that chased Tanaka and reliever Tyler Clippard was greeted by Cameron Maybin with a game-tying RBI double.

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Tanaka seemed happy afterward because he finally pitched well and the Yankees ended up winning.

“I felt like I did a better job with everything,” Tanaka said. “I had good concentration on the mound. I felt like I was able to execute all my pitches well.”

Tanaka’s big pitch was his splitter, his best out pitch … a pitch that had frequently abandoned him while he was going 0-5 with a 10.72 ERA in his previous five starts.

Tanaka struck out eight Angels, six on nasty splitters, and issued two walks.

“This could be big for him because he’s a guy who is used to having success,” Girardi said. “He’s struggled recently, but he looked good tonight.”

Randy Miller may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RandyJMiller. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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