NEW YORK -- You almost felt sorry for baffled Cubs No. 9 hitter John Baker.
Baker had just struck out swinging in his first at-bat Wednesday. So what, right? Happens all the time. But this was different, and a harbinger of things to come from the Yankee starter on the mound, Masahiro Tanaka. The Cubs catcher's facial expression suggested, "What the hell just happened?" He blinked as if he was thinking, "Where did that ball go?"
Three starts into his American major league career, Tanaka isn't inspiring any box-office craziness yet; even if he came to the Yankees off an undefeated season and championship in Japan last year that earned him a $155 million contract. But after the way he pitched in the opener of the Yankees' day-night doubleheader against the Cubs, Tanaka-mania might be just a matter of time.
Tanaka doesn't launch into the fiery mound celebrations that made, say, Joba Chamberlain a sensation for the Yanks as a rookie. But he does have impressive command and a nasty mix of pitches -- most notably, a mid-90s fastball offset by a filthy splitter that disappears into the dirt -- that makes batters look stupid.
As in swing-and-miss stupid.
"Yes," a laughing CC Sabathia agreed before Tanaka allowed just two bunt hits and struck out 10 in eight innings of work in the Yanks' breezy 3-0 win.
Asked if he sees the days Tanaka pitches quickly becoming must-see events that spike the noise level or goose walk-up sales at stadiums both home and away, Sabathia, who knows something about being an ace, nodded again: "Oh, definitely. He's got the stuff. When you put on the pinstripes, you're always playing on the biggest stage. And you still see that kind of excitement happen all around the league. Whenever some No. 1 guys matchup with guys like [Justin] Verlander or [David] Price or whatever, the stadium is just different that day."
Tanaka's splitter was the out pitch that Baker swung through and missed by a good half-foot. A little later on TV, former Yankee Al Leiter -- a thinking-man's pitcher, a man who saw a few things as he won three rings in 19 big league seasons -- actually called the pitch "unhittable" during the YES game broadcast.
And Leiter was nearly right.
Tanaka would have been pitching a no-hitter through six innings if not for a second-inning bunt single that Cubs' left fielder Junior Lake beat out. (Though it required a successful replay challenge by Cubs manager Rick Renteria to reverse the initial call that Lake was out.)
Every time you looked up at the scoreboard, Tanaka seemed to have a Cub hitter in a 1-2 count, and the infamously-tepid Yankee Stadium crowd -- some of the same folks who couldn't rouse themselves to go nuts when Derek Jeter was introduced on his final Opening Day -- actually started to stir and clap when he reared back and tried to ring up another strikeout.
By the seventh inning, getting to Tanaka seemed so difficult the Cubs' No. 3 hitter Anthony Rizzo swallowed his pride and bunted for a gimme single down the vacated third-base line to beat the Yankees' infield shift.
That was the only other hit the Cubs scratched out against him.
Tanaka's 28 strikeouts are the most by any Yankee in his first three starts of the season, breaking Leiter's record of 25.
Tanaka also improved his record to 2-0 and lowered his ERA to 2.05.
It's still scandalously early to make forever statements about him. But Tanaka is giving people reason to believe all the little asterisks that accompanied his move from Japan to the United States are likely being erased.
The slightly bigger ball used in MLB versus the one he used in Japan? It isn't helping hitters hit Tanaka here, either. Nor does the new ball seem to be affecting the movement on his pitches.
The adjustment the 25-year-old right-hander is having to make to a new city, new culture, new language, new stadiums and playing for the most storied franchise in the sport? Tanaka admitted to a little nervousness his first two starts. He conceded that might've had something to do with a few of the early runs he gave up against Toronto and Baltimore before settling down in both of those games. Then he promised to work on calming said nerves rather than explore his newly adopted city on the Yankees' first off days (Monday and Tuesday) and proceeded to throw a scoreless first against the Cubs -- then retire 14 straight between the second and seventh innings.
He was so good Wednesday, he was asked if he felt he had no-hit stuff.
"No, I didn't have my best today," Tanaka insisted.
"He definitely has the stuff," Yankees reliever Shawn Kelley said just a locker away.
By the bottom of the seventh, with the crowd clapping now for Tanaka again, he struck out Lake swinging on another splitter in the dirt. This time, a fan in the stands happily took off his baseball hat and began to staple another K on a long cardboard strip he'd attached just above the bill of his cap.
Tanaka has had only three starts. It's still premature to predict things will always stay this way for him. And the Cubs' lineup is nobody's idea of Murderers' Row.
But so far anyway, pitching has always been like this for Tanaka. Nothing has gotten lost in translation since a year ago.
Doesn't matter whether he's pitching here or back in Japan.