Masahiro Tanaka seems to understand that a subpar outing on Opening Day plays much bigger than any single loss in June or July, but when coupled with the doomsday watch that promises to accompany his right elbow throughout the year, any such stumble is set to be magnified all that much more.
Acknowledging those facts, Tanaka looked over his four-inning loss to the Blue Jays on Monday, a 6-1 final score, and would obviously love to delete an ugly five-run third inning. Otherwise, he said, there were still positives to take from the performance.
"Overall, I think my pitches were good," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "Obviously the third inning, those weren't the results I wanted. Looking back, the first inning, second inning, I think I was pitching well with good tempo and good movement."
Tanaka has made it clear that lighting up the radar gun is not his priority, as he decided this spring to emphasize his two-seam fastball and mostly shelved the four-seamer. Of the 82 pitches he threw on Monday, just six were four-seamers, with 20 registered as sinking two-seamers.
He touched 94 mph once and sat mostly at 90-91 mph, feeding the Blue Jays a steady diet of sliders (25), splitters (29) and a couple of curveballs. The approach was no secret, though Yankee Stadium's scoreboard radar gun showed nothing at all in the first inning. Tanaka laughed and said he had nothing to do with that.
"He's not a guy that's going to blow people away with his fastball; he's never been that," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's been a guy that's gotten people out with his slider and his split. That's who he's been. When he gets behind, he just has to locate better."
The right-hander's biggest issues started with a four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Devon Travis in the third. Jose Reyes dropped a sacrifice that Tanaka andChase Headley converged on, and Headley fired the throw down the right-field line as Kevin Pillar scored Toronto's first run.
Russell Martin punched a two-run single through the right side of the infield, and Tanaka grooved a 90-mph two-seamer to Edwin Encarnacion, who slugged it over the wall in left field for a two-run homer. Tanaka pitched around a single and a walk in the fourth before his outing concluded.
"I'm not going to make excuses," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "He's capable of pitching better than today, and he will. I think you'll see it as long as he stays healthy, and I believe right now he is healthy."
Tanaka's shift in style has raised suspicion that he is protecting the torn ligament in his pitching elbow, fearful of sustaining a further injury that would require Tommy John surgery. Tanaka said that he decided in-game to feed the Blue Jays a steady diet of breaking balls on Monday because he thought his fastballs "were being hit."
"It comes down to location," catcher Brian McCann said. "It comes down to pitching down in the zone, and off that, he has one of the best splits that you're going to see. The slider is going to be there."
Though he went through a normal program in Japan this past winter, the Yankees placed Tanaka on a modified schedule this spring and only expected him to throw 90 pitches in the season opener because he is still building arm strength.
Though they are not necessarily holding their breath every time Tanaka takes the ball, that worst-case scenario never seems too far off in the distance. Because of that, the Yanks will continue to handle Tanaka with care, but he said that he does not think of himself as a work in progress.
"I wasn't looking for any kind of negative outcome, but for today's game, of course I'm upset with the results," Tanaka said. "The team put me in that situation, and just the fact that I couldn't pull through and sort of meet that expectation -- yes, I'm a little bit upset."