An unlikely bat helps save Tanaka, Yankees

MINNEAPOLIS -- Though Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t his lights-out self, New York received a much-needed counterweight in the form of 27-year-old, major league rookie Zelous Wheeler.

Wheeler’s first career hit landed 413 feet away from home plate and in the Yankees’ bullpen at Target Field to give New York a 4-2 lead in the fifth inning -- and more importantly giving the Yankees’ starting rotation run support.

“It was like, ‘Wow, I hit a home run in my second at-bat,’” Wheeler said. “I hit it on the count I think it was 3-1, got a pitch over and laid it up.”

The Yankees would like Wheeler to grab hold of this chance to bolster a struggling lineup that is hitting .251 on the season. The Yankees’ 330 runs are also tied for third-fewest in the American League more than halfway through the year.

Tanaka (12-3) snapped a two-game losing streak with the win but posted career-highs in both hits (nine) and earned runs (four) allowed through seven innings. His streak of 16 quality starts to begin his career ended, tying him with Steve Rogers for the longest streak since ER has been tracked.

“I feel that tonight, this outing, was one of my worst ones this season as far as hitting the spots and making pitches,” Tanaka said, via a team translator. “I think the offense came through for us, got me a lot of run support tonight. I think that was the game.”

Tanaka’s ERA rose from 2.10 to 2.27, but he’s still far and away the Yankees’ top pitcher as CC Sabathia suffered a setback in his rehab when he woke up with inflammation in his right knee on Thursday.

On a night when Derek Jeter and Jacoby Ellsbury combined to hit 0-for-8, Wheeler, along with Carlos Beltran, Ichiro Suzuki and Mark Teixeira, lifted Tanaka to the victory as the foursome accounted for seven of the Yankees’ 10 hits on the night.

Wheeler’s second hit help set up Brendan Ryan for a RBI double to score Suzuki in the seventh inning and extend the Yankees’ lead to 5-3.

“It’s a special night for [Wheeler]. Obviously he’s part of the win, a big part,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I’ve talked about a kid who persevered for a long time, to get his opportunity for his first hit to be a homer and in our bullpen so we get the ball is kind of special.”

The night started out with a familiar Yankees drought as Twins pitcher Phil Hughes retired the first six batters he faced. Suzuki knocked the only hit of the first four innings for New York before Beltran belted a 401-foot, three-run home run into the right-field stands that scored Teixeira and Brian McCann.

The Yankees had only managed two hits in their last 25 chances with runners in scoring position entering Thursday’s game.

“I always think the toughest run to score is first run,” Girardi said. “To get it that way, we hadn’t done too much before that inning too.”

Girardi and the Yankees will need the bats to stay hot as their ace Tanaka can only pitch once every five days. New York will rely on a starting pitching trio that shares a combined 4.35 ERA this season for the remaining three games in Minnesota.

For a team that averages 3.93 runs per game this season, something needed to change -- and on Thursday night, that something came from Wheeler.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time; hopefully I can take advantage of it,” Wheeler said.