Tanaka is something to look forward to

NEW YORK -- It was a day when the Yankees had one eye on the scoreboard and the other on 2015, and it turned out to be no contest.

2015 won in a landslide. While the Royals were beating the Detroit Tigers in Kansas City, trimming the Yankees' tragic number to playoff elimination down to four, Masahiro Tanaka was showing the kind of stuff that had the Yankees dreaming of all sorts of glory -- Cy Young and rookie of the year awards, AL East division title, maybe even that elusive 28th world championship -- back in June.

Now they can begin to dream those dreams once again for next year, because barring something unforeseen, Tanaka appears to be on the road to avoiding Tommy John surgery and the one-year minimum layoff it entails. Assuming he wakes up on the right side of the bed Monday morning -- and truthfully, if he was still experiencing debilitating pain in his elbow, it probably would have manifested itself while he was pitching, as it did in Cleveland back in July -- and gets through one more start in Boston on Saturday, the Yankees can probably sleep soundly this winter in the reasonable expectation that he will pick up in 2015 where he left off 2½ months ago.

In a season chock full of disappointments and underachievement, and with a roster that leaves little hope for significant offensive improvement next year, that is at least something to look forward to.

"I thought he was great," said catcher Brian McCann, who had the best view of anyone in the ballpark. "He looked the same."

He meant the same Tanaka as he had been when he was 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA before he hit the slump that culminated in an MRI tube and a diagnosis of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. More encouraging words could hardly be spoken to a Yankees fan.

"It looked like he had good stuff and like he hadn't skipped a beat, really," said Brett Gardner, who also had a pretty good look from center field. "He pitched really well. I look forward to playing behind him again later this week."

Gardner probably will have the same view when Tanaka takes the mound at Fenway, because it certainly didn't sound like Jacoby Ellsbury was getting back any day soon. Same goes for Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran.

Those are the main reasons this last week is likely to be a futile stretch run for the Yankees, those and the fact that the Yankees' offense, which mustered three home runs and five runs in Sunday's 5-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, has probably been missing in action for too long to make a difference by showing up now.

But a healthy Tanaka is another story. Not for this year, of course; he was never intended to come back and save the season in two starts.

What the Yankees needed to see Sunday was Tanaka's ability to pitch effectively through the pain of a torn UCL -- although Tanaka said he was "pain-free" after the game, it's hard to believe that an injury that does not heal without surgery can simply disappear in the course of 10 weeks -- and to everyone's satisfaction, he did that on Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi admitted that he will probably hold his breath until he gets the all clear from Tanaka on Monday morning but also said, "I thought if something was to happen, in my mind, you’d see it on a pitch, not necessarily the next day. But still, we got through today, so let’s get through tomorrow."

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild, always low-key, called Tanaka's outing "a step in the right direction" but also acknowledged that the cases in which pitchers have been able to avoid Tommy John surgery after tearing a UCL are few and far between.

"Are we going to know fully until five years down the road? Probably not," he said. "There's a lot of pitchers in baseball that have probably similar things that are asymptomatic. It's possible that he can get through this for quite a while. It's also possible that it comes up and bites him and that's it. We're hopeful that it's the earlier scenario and he's going to be fine and have a nice long career with no problems."

Right now, the Yankees would settle for a healthy 2015. Although many think the Yankees' 2014 season might have gone differently had Tanaka not gotten injured, Girardi wouldn't take the bait when asked that question in the postgame news conference.

Neither would McCann, one of the main culprits in the failure of the Yankees' offense this season who has recently shown signs of busting out; his two home runs on Sunday gave him the team lead, with 22, and he drove in three of the Yankees' five runs.

"Our pitching this year has been phenomenal top to bottom," he said. "I feel like the guys that have stepped up in spots for him have all pitched excellent. Our bullpen has been lights-out. I feel like they keep us in every ballgame."

And so it was in this game. Adam Warren, whose awful stretch in August seems like a distant memory, relieved Tanaka and retired all five batters he faced, three on strikes. David Robertson pitched a quick and dirty ninth to earn his 38th save. Only Dellin Betances, who has been scary-good all season, faltered slightly in the eighth, allowing a run on two singles and a pair of stolen bases by Jose Reyes.

But the story of the day was Tanaka's return, an event that was expected to pay dividends not immediately but in the near future.

Even Girardi, who admits he still looks to the scoreboard for encouragement every day, was able to point at the renewed promise of Tanaka as a reason for hope, even if the out-of-town scores had none to offer.

"We haven’t gotten a lot of good news lately," he said. "We got some today."