NEW YORK -- Nine local and national media entities cover the New York Yankees as a beat. Eight Japanese reporters cover Masahiro Tanaka as a beat. To say Tanaka is scrutinized is like saying TMZ has a tendency to get into people's business.
When Tanaka takes the mound Sunday night in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, he will try to prevent the end of a Yankees season that has been promising but may be doomed to be remembered for manager Joe Girardi's Game 2 decisions.
For his part, Tanaka is at a crossroads of his Yankees career and possibly could be pitching his final game for the team.
He has fallen from being the undisputed Opening Day starter and a Cy Young candidate to the team’s fourth choice to begin a playoff game. The Yankees had Luis Severino, Sonny Gray and CC Sabathia take the mound in the postseason before handing the ball to Tanaka. He has fallen from the team's ace to its No. 4 starter.
“To me, I think that kind of bothers him,” said Eriko Takehama of Sankei Sports, one of the reporters who follows Tanaka. “That's what he’s been since day one. He’s really a competitive person.”
On Sunday night, he will also attempt to delay a pretty hefty decision he must make. In his seven-year, $155 million contract, Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, convinced the Yankees to include an opt-out after the fourth season. If Tanaka had pitched this year as he had for much of his first three seasons, he could have used the clause, at the least, to extract more money and years from the Yankees, if he didn’t want to test free agency.
However, given his 13-12 record and 4.74 ERA this year plus a little tear in a ligament in his elbow, a decision to opt out would dare the Yankees to let him walk. And with all signs indicating Tanaka would prefer to stay in the Bronx, opting out would be a risky choice. The pressure of the opt-out also could be a factor in Tanaka’s mediocre regular season.
“I don’t think so,” said Anri Uechi of Kyodo News, who also covers Tanaka. “I don’t think money is his priority. The team he played with in Japan was kind of a new team and wasn’t really good until they won in his last season. He won 24 games and lost none. Their team won the first time a championship. He wanted to try a really traditional team with a long history and with high expectations. He tried to come over here. I'm sure he wants to be more successful in New York and win the championship and be part of it. I don’t think money is a big factor for him.
“I don’t think he is satisfied with his performance, especially this year. I think he wants to be more successful and show what he can do in a big market like New York.”
Tanaka started one previous playoff game for the Yankees. In 2015, he lost the wild-card game to starter Dallas Keuchel and the Astros. Tanaka allowed two runs over five innings.
But this year, he has never been fully right for an extended period of time. Girardi labeled it an “up and down” season, which is kind when you consider that he essentially dropped Tanaka three rungs on the rotation ladder. It has put a dent in Tanaka’s pride.
“I think it bothered him,” Uechi said.
Tanaka struggled with the long ball this season. He gave up 35 home runs, which was tied for the fourth-worst in the majors.
“The hitters have learned his pitches,” Takehama said. “I think that was one of the reasons he was trying to be perfect.”
Early on, Tanaka, tried to be too fine and really struggled. In his first 18 starts of the year, his ERA was 5.47. In his final 12 starts, he had a 3.77 ERA, which includes his last outing of the regular season, an impressive 15-strikeout performance in seven scoreless innings against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium.
Tanaka has been much better in the Bronx than on the road, which was a factor in saving him for Game 3 instead of Game 2 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. He was 9-5 with a 3.22 ERA in 15 home starts; in 15 road starts, he was 4-7 with a 6.48 ERA. Overall, in his Yankees career, Tanaka is 52-28 with a 3.56 ERA, which is good, but not ace numbers.
“He’s done OK, but not great,” Uechi said. “He came here as the best Japanese pitcher ever. He is the kind of guy who expected to win more than 15 games in a year.”
Against Cleveland, Tanaka has not been great, going 1-2 with a 4.63 ERA overall and 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA at home. With a win Sunday, he would give a reprieve to his team and delay his big decision.
“I don’t think he feels the pressure because he has pitched in big games, the Japan Series and even the wild-card game two years ago,” Uechi said. “He is more feeling, like, regret that he is not the No. 1. He is really competitive. He does not like to lose. He is always the No. 1. The fact he is pitching Game 3 is making him more motivated to be better and to come back and be the ace.”