NEW YORK -- On the surface, New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka's outing on Thursday appeared to be one of his best of the 2015 season.
He worked into the eighth inning against a dangerous Baltimore Orioles lineup and held it to a mere two hits -- which later became three when an error ruling on Brett Gardner was changed to a hit by official scorer Howie Karpin -- and one run through the first seven innings. As usual, Tanaka's control and efficiency were admirable. He did not walk a batter and entering the eighth inning, had thrown a tidy 90 pitches. His splitter and slider accounted for six of his seven strikeouts, and a couple of them came on pitches that bounced in the dirt, evidence of his deception.
But then came the second hitter of the eighth inning, J.J. Hardy, who sat on a 2-0 fastball and crushed it into the visitor's bullpen. Two batters later, Manny Machado did the same thing to a similar pitch, only depositing it a little to the left, in the seats beyond the left-field fence.
They were solo home runs in a one-sided ballgame, and after the smoke cleared -- Machado turned out to be the last hitter Tanaka faced -- the Orioles were still blown out, 9-3. And Tanaka still wound up with a well-deserved win to run his record to 7-3.
The only jarring note came at the end of an otherwise impressive line: 7⅔ innings pitched, four hits, three earned runs, no walks and seven strikeouts.
And three home runs. (Chris Davis had homered in the second, also on a fastball).
That made five home runs allowed by Tanaka in his last two starts and 15 overall this season, matching his total for all of last season in 55 fewer innings. And but for a couple of feet, he might as well have allowed five home runs. Leading off the game, Machado sent Gardner to within a foot of the left-field fence to catch his long fly. In the sixth, Jimmy Paredes hit a line drive off the right-field fence less than two feet from the top of the wall. Under no circumstances, even after a Yankees victory completed a sweep over the Orioles and left New York a season-high 12 games over .500, could an outing in which a starting pitcher allowed five home runs be considered anything less than alarming.
The raw truth is, had Tanaka thrown enough innings to qualify among the league leaders in starting pitching, he would find himself at or near the top of two of the most undesirable statistics: home runs per nine innings and the percentage of fly balls that go for home runs.
Through 13 starts this season, Tanaka has allowed 1.65 home runs per nine innings, which would place him second-worst in the AL, two ticks behind Phil Hughes (1.67), the American League's king of the long ball, and just below CC Sabathia (1.61). And his home runs/fly ball percentage, 17.9 percent, would make him the league's undisputed champ, more than a full percentage point ahead of Sabathia, the current leader at 16.7.
Clearly, if there is one thing batters can do against Tanaka, it is going deep. So far, that has not been a problem, in large part because of Tanaka's stinginess in giving up baserunners, especially through walks. To his credit, he rarely works with men on base. And as Yankees manager Joe Girardi pointed out, maybe if it were a closer game, Tanaka would have pitched to Hardy and Machado differently in the eighth. Maybe he would have stayed away from his four-seam fastball, which was hittable last season even before he suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in July. Or maybe he would not have been in the game at all.
Still, even the manager conceded that Tanaka's tendency to give up home runs could become an area of concern as the season wears on.
“It’s not what you want to see," Girardi said. "Maybe if it’s a 3-1 game, he pitches a little bit different. You can survive giving up solo home runs. You can survive and be very successful. It’s when they’re two- and three-run home runs that you worry about. You try to correct those things and move on.”
Tanaka said his problems in the eighth inning were neither a product of fatigue nor faulty pitch selection in a one-sided game, but rather a pitcher's favored fallback position: Location, location, location.
"Those last two home runs were just a mistake on my side," he said. "The focus was there. It was just the location. You want to go out strong, but then gave up those two home runs. I'm not particularly happy about that, but I’ll adjust for the next time around."
Tanaka has already made some adjustments after a rather ordinary first half, in which he started out 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA but then had a couple of bad starts, including back-to-back starts in which he allowed 11 earned runs and six homers in 10 innings, raising his ERA by nearly a run and a half. His season was also interrupted for six weeks by a forearm strain. Recently, however, he has looked better, and Thursday's game was his third consecutive win.
"The past three games, I've been gradually getting better, but the goal is to get much better," he said.
The question is, how much better can Tanaka get?
For now at least, the worries that his elbow injury will suddenly worsen and force him to undergo Tommy John surgery have eased, especially because his fastball velocity occasionally touches 94 mph, which seems to indicate he is throwing without pain.
It is a bigger worry that Tanaka's fastball is hittable at any speed, and on days when his splitter or slider are not working, he and the Yankees could be in big trouble. During spring training, he said he would limit the number of fastballs he threw this season because of how often it was hit last year, and yet data shows he is throwing his four-seam fastball about as often this year as he did last year, and with similar results.
"I think that’s true with the majority of pitchers," said John Ryan Murphy, who caught Tanaka on Thursday. "He fell behind on Hardy and then got a 2-0 fastball right over the plate. With Machado, we probably should have gone right to the splitter there, but we went inside and he hurt us. Like all pitchers, when he makes a mistake, it’s going to hurt them."
Although he doesn't make many of them, Tanaka's mistakes seem to go a long way. For a pitcher with so few flaws, that is one that might need some correcting.