FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When you travel as Masahiro Tanaka has, be it 7,500 miles from Japan to New York, or 135 miles from Tampa to Fort Myers, there are bound to be some bumps in the road.
In his fourth spring training appearance -- and his last major one before the Yankees set him loose on the American League -- Tanaka hit a couple of those bumps, pretty much the first obstacles he has met on what has been a remarkably smooth transition so far.
But it's not whether you hit the bumps, but how you bounce back from them, and, by just about any standard, Tanaka bounced back well in the Yankees' 5-4 win over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday afternoon.
Working without his best stuff -- his splitter had a potentially dangerous penchant for staying up in the strike zone rather than diving down toward the dirt like it is supposed to -- Tanaka got through 5⅔ innings against an Opening Day-type lineup and escaped relatively unscathed, allowing three runs on five hits and leaving with a 4-3 lead.
There were one or two good breaks -- a successful challenge of a stolen base by manager Joe Girardi that became a key out that saved a run and a two-seam fastball that Josh Willingham just missed crushing for what would have been a game-changing grand slam, both in the third inning -- and one superior show of guts and guile, when Tanaka snuck a fastball by Joe Mauer immediately after being disappointed when plate umpire Jeff Kellogg called a 2-2 slider that looked like strike three a ball.
But mostly, instead of a performance by a rock-star phenom, today the Yankees got a look at a good, solid major league pitcher, one who needed to find ways to get hitters out when nothing was coming easy for him and ways to throw strikes when a savvy Twins lineup was being a lot more patient, and selective, than the free-swinging Atlanta Braves had been in Tanaka's last outing six days ago.
"I learned about him today, about how aggressive he is," catcher Francisco Cervelli said. "Anytime he got into a little problem, he put a little extra. Now I know what he's able to do, and it's good, man."
Tanaka threw 92 pitches, a bit too many for an outing that didn't quite last six innings. His pitches were up more than he would like them to be, and when he came out of the game, he left the tying run on second base.
But you knew that, so far, his assimilation into Major League Baseball had been too smooth to be true, that, at some point, he was going to have to show that he could dig down and pitch his way out of a jam. Today, the Yankees felt he did so.
"I felt that it was really obvious that I had good innings and I had bad innings out there today," Tanaka said through his interpreter. His problems arose from too many first-pitch balls, too many deep counts, too many splitters that didn't quite split and cutters that didn't quite cut. And, no doubt to the dismay of the V-Lo crowd, his fastball is never going to break any radar guns. Even the one he struck Mauer out with came in at a leisurely 88 mph, but it was in a good spot -- up and in -- to a hitter who no doubt expected Tanaka to go down and away.
"The fastball stay a little up, and when the two-seam doesn’t go down, it’s a problem, you know," Cervelli said. "But it was an out. That’s it. Next time we gotta go a little more down."
"I thought he did alright," Girardi said. "I’ve seen him sharper, but, overall, I was pleased because he held them down. That’s what you want to see, because you’re not going to have your great stuff every time you go out there, and you’ve got to find a way to get it done. And that’s what we he did today."
Tanaka's ERA rose from 1.93 to 3.00, but he got his first W of the spring when Fred Lewis got the last out of the sixth, and David Herndon and Shane Greene threw scoreless innings before Yoshinori Tateyama surrendered a solo home run in the ninth to cut the Yankees' lead to 5-4. Tateyama struck out the side to earn the save.
Offensively, Scott Sizemore knocked in two runs with a third-inning single, Zelous Wheeler, who had two hits, doubled in another and Roybell Herrera, called up from the minors to fill out the roster, singled in another run pinch hitting for Brett Gardner in the seventh. The fifth run scored on a wild pitch.
But, as usual in spring training games, the ending was less important than the journey, and on this long trip to nowhere, the Yankees felt they learned important things about a pitcher they hope will bring them a long way during the regular season.
"From studying his tapes and seeing what he’s got, he’s pretty much what I thought he was," Girardi said of Tanaka. "He knows how to pitch. He’s got a strike split and a swing-and-miss split. He can add and subtract from his fastball. He can sink it. He holds runners, and he's aggressive. He does all the things he has to do to be successful. Overall, I thought it was a good day."