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Masahiro Tanaka nearing return

NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka could be one more rehab start away from returning to the major leagues, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said on Tuesday.

Tanaka, on the disabled list since July 9 with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, threw a three-inning simulated game against four teammates at Yankee Stadium before Tuesday night's game against the Rays. Afterward, Girardi said Tanaka might need just one more start -- either another simulated game or perhaps an instructional league start in against minor leaguers in Tampa -- before making a big-league start for the Yankees.

"I think that's possible to look at," Girardi said.

Assuming a normal five-day break before Tanaka's next outing, he could start one of the games against the Toronto Blue Jays, who come to Yankee Stadium for four games Sept. 18-21.

The Yankees are eager to see Tanaka pitch to major-league hitters before the end of this season in order to help them gauge if their decision to rehab his torn UCL -- an injury that is customarily treated with Tommy John surgery and requires a year of recovery time -- without surgery was the right one.

"If he pitched in a big league game or two and felt good, you wouldn't do surgery on a guy that felt good, that's the bottom line," Girardi said. "Our hope is that we get through this and that he's a pitcher for us next year. For us to operate on a guy that feels good would be silly."

Tanaka said his arm felt better than it did after a simulated game in Detroit on August 28, after which he reported "general soreness" in his pitching arm and was shut down for a week.

"I definitely was throwing stronger, harder, than I did in Detroit," Tanaka said through an interpreter.

Girardi, too, said he noticed a difference in Tanaka's pitches this time out.

"I thought his stuff was sharper, I thought there was more velocity, I thought there was better command," Girardi said. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow. His next step would be another bullpen and prepare him for another start."

Tanaka threw 45 pitches in three simulated innings to teammates Chris Young, Zelous Wheeler, Antoan Richardson and Austin Romine.

"I thought he was really good," said Young, who went 1-for-3 against Tanaka as a member of the New York Mets in May. "I'm not really sure how the velo is supposed to look, or anything like that, but his split-finger was just as good as ever and his breaking ball was as good as I've ever seen it."

Asked if he thought Tanaka was close to game-ready, Young said, "If he was on the mound in a game, I would trust him. I would trust standing behind him."