Masahiro Tanaka answered all of the Yankees' questions to their satisfaction this spring, and as he eyes an Opening Day rematch with Dallas Keuchel and the Astros, the right-hander has his mind focused on producing a different result than last year's AL Wild Card playoff game.
Tanaka will be back on the same mound facing the same lineup on Monday at Yankee Stadium. He accepted the loss in his postseason debut last October, having allowed two runs in five innings of a 3-0 loss to Houston, and said that he carried the feeling with him as he returned to Japan.
"I can't really remember exactly when I was thinking about it, but what I remember is I felt responsible for the loss," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I know we were going against a good pitcher in Dallas Keuchel. If I had been able to give a better performance, then maybe the outcome was different."
The Yankees appreciate that, but they'd probably point any fingers more at their bats and Keuchel's mastery; after all, the left-hander is carrying a 28-inning scoreless streak against New York into the opener.
Tanaka isn't one to shy away from a challenge; as he enters his third year with the Yankees, the 27-year-old believes that he can return to the dominant form he showed prior to injury in 2014, coming off a '15 campaign in which he was 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 24 starts.
After the conclusion of this past season, Tanaka had surgery to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow, which the Yankees said was a pre-existing condition from his time in Japan.
"It's clearly [feeling] better than pre-surgery," Tanaka said.
Even so, it was a spring of mixed results for Tanaka, who was challenged by manager Joe Girardi to "dial it up" for his final start against the Phillies. The Yankees believe that Tanaka paced his early performance out of caution with his elbow, perhaps explaining his 7.36 spring ERA.
"We wanted him to stay healthy," general manager Brian Cashman said. "I know we started him late, obviously just for protection purposes, just for getting him out of the gate a little later. And he's a veteran, so it's kind of hard to evaluate that type of performance.
"... When you're a veteran, you go about it in most cases a little bit differently, right or wrong. I would say that makes it more difficult to evaluate what you're seeing vs. someone getting work in vs. someone really trying to put up quality performance at the same time."
Tanaka said that the inflammation from the spur bothered him more between starts than when he was on the mound, but he is hopeful that cleaning out the elbow will help him reach the 200-inning milestone -- something he hasn't done since 2013, when he was with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
He insists that he will be ready to empty the tank when the bell rings for the regular season.
"The goal is to go 200 innings, and I think that the important part is to be healthy enough to pitch throughout the season," Tanaka said.