Tanaka modest, but record boasts for him
Yankees righty has not lost in 41 regular-season starts between Japan, MLB
MILWAUKEE -- When Masahiro Tanaka arrived in North America, the initial question was whether he could perform at anything like the lofty level he had reached in Japan.
In seven big league starts since then, the central Tanaka question has changed to: "Is this fellow ever going to lose?"
Tanaka was 24-0 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Nippon Professional Baseball last year. He has not lost a regular-season start since Aug. 19, 2012. That was 41 starts ago.
True, everything we know about baseball indicates that Tanaka will lose a game at some point. But the seven opponents of the New York Yankees who have faced them this season could not stick him with that elusive defeat.
Friday night, it was the Milwaukee Brewers' turn in what was Tanaka's first appearance in a National League city. Maybe this would reveal a weakness on the part of Tanaka. It did, but it was hardly a fatal flaw. Tanaka wasn't much at the plate. He had three at-bats. He struck out three times.
The Yankees defeated the Brewers, 5-3, while Tanaka's Major League record moved to 5-0 with a 2.57 ERA. He has now won 33 decisions in a row, the first 28 of them coming in Japan.
Tanaka's transition to North American baseball has been characterized not by the need for radical adjustments, but by a continuation of the success that he had in Japan. The expectation that this would occur was why the Yanks were willing to award a seven-year, $155 million contract to a man who had not yet pitched in the Majors Leagues.
But it turns out that Tanaka is a tough customer in any hemisphere. When he gets to two strikes on a hitter, he has two put-away pitches available: a nasty slider and an even nastier split-fingered fastball.
The at-bat is almost officially over at that point. Coming into Friday night, hitters in any two-strike count were 9-for-92 (.098) with 51 strikeouts against Tanaka.
Tanaka did have moments of vulnerability Friday night. After five scoreless innings in which the Brewers reached base only three times, he gave up two doubles and a single to begin the sixth. Tanaka pitched out of that inning, inducing a double-play grounder from Milwaukee cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez and then striking out first baseman Mark Reynolds.
After a strikeout to begin the seventh, Tanaka gave up consecutive singles, putting runners on first and third. Reliever Adam Warren came in and a strikeout with a caught-stealing ended the threat.
Tanaka finished the night with numbers that were fine, but not as gaudy as some of his work as a Yankee: 6 1/3 innings, two runs on seven hits, one walk, seven strikeouts.
Afterward, Tanaka said that he had not been at his best in this game, even when he appeared to be in command over the first five innings. He was almost apologetic about this performance.
"As far as my pitching goes, I was missing some spots and I wasn't at my best," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "But I'll make adjustments and go about it in my next outing.
"It might have looked like I was cruising at the beginning, but I don't think I was able to really pitch the way I wanted to. I think I was getting a little bit lucky, as well."
How then did Tanaka successfully get through six innings against a division-leading team in a hitter-friendly park?
"It's just basically not giving up, not giving in," Tanaka said. "That's basically it."
"He was really impressive tonight," Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "It's hard to tell the difference between his fastball and his split-finger, because he threw it with the same arm speed and it had the same rotation, and then [the splitter] just dove when it got to you. It's a very difficult pitch to pick up on. He was pretty good tonight, all the way to the end."
Tanaka seems to be a genuinely humble man. When he was asked about Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers coming within one out of a no-hitter Friday night, Tanaka quickly responded:
"I would never be able to pitch the way he pitches."
That modesty will serve Tanaka well as a public figure in North America. Anybody who hasn't lost in 41 starts and remains reflexively modest must be something very much like the genuine article.
What will serve Tanaka at least as well is his ability on the mound, not to mention his competitive nature. On a night when he racked up one more win in a chain of victories that stretches back 21 months and across two hemispheres, he was his own toughest critic.
But when a pitcher is this good, wherever he pitches, his record does all the boasting for him.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.