NEW YORK -- He was something of an unknown when the season began, and there was little doubt that gave Masahiro Tanaka an edge.
But the season is going on, nearing its midway point. Familiarity isn't helping the hitters.
Tanaka, if anything, is getting better.
Tuesday night, the New York Yankees' new ace faced a loaded AL East lineup for the second time through. He faced a Toronto Blue Jays team that came in convinced that there was a better way to attack Tanaka, convinced that he lives too often outside the strike zone and that if hitters can discipline themselves, they can get him in trouble.
The news out of the Yankees' 3-1 win is that it didn't work.
The Jays got a run on the game's first pitch, when Tanaka mislocated a fastball and Jose Reyes drilled it into the right-field seats. The Jays then forced Tanaka to throw 103 more pitches, got him behind in the count more often than normal, and ended up as his 11th victim in this remarkable start to a season and a major-league career.
"He pitched amazing," catcher Brian McCann said, not for the first time this year.
Tanaka, of course, said his stuff "wasn't there," that he couldn't make his pitches, that he just felt good that he "battled."
We're used to that by now, but we're also used to looking up at the end of the night and trying to find new ways to describe how great Tanaka has been.
Try this one: By allowing just one run in six innings Tuesday, Tanaka lowered his ERA to 1.99. In the DH era, only three American League starters have finished a season with an ERA under 2.00: Pedro Martinez (1.74) in 2000, Ron Guidry (1.74) in 1978 and Roger Clemens (1.93) in 1990.
Yes, but that's a full season. Tanaka isn't there yet.
Fine. The last Yankee starter to finish the first half with an ERA under 2.00? That would be Phil Niekro (1.84) in 1984.
And he's getting better. In his last five starts, Tanaka is 5-0 with a 1.26 ERA.
"I've been impressed every time he takes the mound," McCann said.
In a way, the Blue Jays were right. Tanaka does get plenty of outs on pitches outside the zone. His stuff is so good that when he gets to two strikes, he can get batters to chase split-finger fastballs that are down.
Theoretically, that should give the hitters something of an edge the second time around. And since Tanaka's only loss came in his second start against the Chicago Cubs -- until Tuesday, the only team he had faced twice -- there was some mystery in how he'd do against the Jays.
Tanaka faced Toronto in his major-league debut back in the first week of April. He gave up a home run to the first batter he faced (Melky Cabrera), then a couple of runs on three singles and an error in the second inning. He went seven innings, and he won.
Tuesday, he gave up a home run on his first pitch, something Tanaka said he never remembered doing before in his career.
"I think giving up that home run threw me off rhythm a little," he said, through his interpreter. "I said to myself that I have to hang in there."
New York Yankees
McCann almost laughed at the suggestion that Tanaka's rhythm was off.
"He settles down as well as anybody," the catcher said.
He makes adjustments as well as anybody. He reads hitters' intentions as well as anybody.
He pitches as well as anybody.
The league's batters are getting to know Tanaka better as the season goes on.
It doesn't seem to be helping them.