Masahiro Tanaka: Still work to do

DETROIT -- Masahiro Tanaka threw 49 pitches in a simulated game on the field at Comerica Park on Thursday morning, and both he and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi agreed that Tanaka came out of it with no pain in his injured right elbow.

Where they disagreed, however, was in their assessment of how close Tanaka was to returning to pitch in a major league game.

"I'm optimistic," Girardi said after Tanaka threw three innings against Yankees backup shortstop Brendan Ryan, taking rests in between in an attempt to recreate the flow of a real game. "I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe he won't take the next step. At no point has he said he's felt anything in his arm. I think he has normal soreness after a day like today, but I am optimistic."

Tanaka, however, was less enthusiastic after the approximately 30-minute workout, in which Ryan hit the ball hard several times and appeared to get at least three base hits.

"I'm actually still not there yet," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I think some of the balls I am throwing I'm still not able to hit my spots. The rust is still there, so I still have some work to do to get back to game-ready."

Asked if he was "excited" about the prospect of pitching in a game again this season, an unsmiling Tanaka said, "I think that being cautious is better than being more excited."

And in a later, separate interview session with the Japanese media, Tanaka said he would need more than the two more simulated games Girardi had hoped would get him ready to return to action, according to a member of Tanaka's personal contingent.

"He said he would have to talk to the manager about that," said Yoshiki Sato, Tanaka's Japanese press liaison.

The difference in perception cast some doubt about Tanaka's ability to return this season from a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that generally requires Tommy John surgery and a year-long recovery period.

The Yankees are attempting to rehab Tanaka's injury without surgery. He received a platelet-rich plasma injection after suffering the injury in a game on July 8, and after a three-week healing period was put on a throwing program designed to get him back on the mound sometime in September.

Thursday's workout was Tanaka's first attempt to throw to a hitter under near-game conditions, with Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild calling balls and strikes from behind an L-screen on the infield.

Ryan, a right-handed batter, was also asked to take some swings left-handed, and Tanaka got his only swing-and-miss of the session with Ryan batting from the left side. From the right side, Ryan grounded what appeared to be a single over the mound and lined another into center field in the first inning. He also hit a hard line drive to right in the third inning.

"He looked good," Ryan said. "He's not going to be where he was right before he got hurt, obviously; he's been off for quite a while. But it's good to see him out there."

Asked how close he thought Tanaka was to major league ready, Ryan said, "Pretty close. He can go out there and get outs, but you want to do the responsible thing and you want to give him the best chance to have success and help us. I'm definitely encouraged myself. I want to say it's a little bit exciting."

Ryan said Tanaka threw some effective sliders and a few splitters, his signature pitch and the one that is considered most taxing to the elbow.

"They were moving; some kind of came towards me, some kind of cut," Ryan said. "Some of them were so dirty you just forget to swing."

But the enthusiasm of Girardi and Ryan was tempered by Tanaka's apparent disappointment with his own performance.

"I think all of my pitches now are still rusty," he said. "I can't really say until I actually step on a mound in a game, but right now all I'm trying to do is get myself back to the best shape possible."

Tanaka was a legitimate AL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year candidate over the first half of the season, with an 11-1 record and 1.99 ERA in his first 14 starts. But he lost three of his next four, with a 4.35 ERA in those games, and left in the seventh inning of a game in Cleveland complaining of pain in his elbow.

With the Yankees scuffling to salvage a playoff spot over the last 31 games, the return of an effective Tanaka to their rotation would be a major boost to their chances, a prospect that seemed to excite Girardi.

Asked if he was already starting to consider Tanaka a part of his September rotation, the manager said, "You can. I don't think you plan your whole schedule around it, but you have an idea that it's possible that he could come back at some point here. I think today was a step in the right direction."