On draft night, Masahiro Tanaka emerges a surprise No. 1 over Chris Sale

BOSTON -- It was amazingly before 10 p.m. in the winning New York Yankees clubhouse at Fenway Park. After a 2-hour and 21-minute game on Thursday in which the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka out-aced the Boston Red Sox’s Chris Sale, Tanaka was in the middle of the road clubhouse, which, as usual, had too many people and too little space. Tanaka spoke about his masterpiece.

Just in front of Tanaka, several Yankees centered around a large-screen TV as Mel Kiper Jr. talked about the upcoming Eagles pick in the NFL draft in Philadelphia. Matt Holliday, Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, Greg Bird and Chris Carter were studying the draft picks as they enjoyed a victory meal and discussed the merits of asparagus. Holliday asked Judge to lower the music on the stereo system, because Holliday wanted to see how Eagles fans would react to their team’s selection.

A few feet away, Tanaka sounded a little like a draft expert as he mentioned how Sale was the definite top pick entering the matchup. Tanaka spoke somewhat self-effacingly about how Sale was the favorite. The Yankees’ No. 1 did have some points, considering Tanaka entered with a 6.00 ERA, while Sale’s was 0.91. If you would have had to choose a pitcher, Sale would have been the safer pick.

“A lot of people thought that how well he’s been pitching up to this point, he probably would have the upper hand. I wanted to try and go in there and beat the odds,” Tanaka said through an interpreter.

On Thursday night, there was no doubt who was the top choice, as Tanaka matched Sale zero for zero for the first three innings. The Yankees got Tanaka a run in the fourth, and the right-hander kept mowing down the Red Sox. A couple of insurance runs in the ninth made the 3-0 score line a little less impressive, but it didn’t change the fact that Tanaka and the Yankees were once again superior to the Red Sox.

In their praise, Tanaka’s Yankee teammates, coaches and manager sounded as though they could have been sitting next to Trey Wingo in Philly.

  • “That’s what a No. 1 does,” third baseman Chase Headley said.

  • “He went toe-to-toe with Chris Sale,” manager Joe Girardi said.

  • Pitching coach Larry Rothschild: "Through nine innings, this is the best [Masahiro Tanaka] I've ever seen."

  • “I don’t remember him being any better,” Headly added.

The Yankees left Boston winners of the two games in the rain-shortened series. They are 13-7, while the team that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman dubbed “the Golden State Warriors of baseball” is 11-10. If the Yankees' superiority over the Red Sox is going to be a seasonlong story, it will need to be, in part, because Tanaka is an ace over the six months of the regular season.

On Thursday, Tanaka allowed three hits and struck out just three, becoming the first Yankees starter to have that combo against the Red Sox since Jim Bouton in 1963.

Tanaka did it by grounding the Red Sox, as only 35 percent of their 26 balls in play were in the air. The Red Sox could not hit Tanaka's splitter, going 0-for-11 on the pitch. And that splitter is rounding into shape: After the Rays went 5-for-7 on Opening Day against it, opponents are 1-for-25 ever since.

He was not afraid to throw the cutter, either. Of Tanaka's 97 pitches, 21 percent were cutters, the second-highest output of his MLB career.

Tanaka and the Yankees knew what they were up against in Sale, who was the consensus top pick coming into Thursday night at Fenway. At the end of the night, Tanaka was the No. 1 left standing.