<
>

Tanaka's restraint not good for Yanks

NEW YORK -- The sun was shining brilliantly. The TV broadcast showed a kid in the stands holding a sign that read, "I Skipt Skool" for this. The red-white-and-blue parade bunting was hanging on the stadium railing like it always does on Opening Day, and it was no surprise -- no surprise at all, really -- when Yankees manager Joe Girardi tried his best not to spoil the optimism by pumping the brakes on the worries about Masahiro Tanaka's compromised pitching elbow before the season began Monday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

Then the game started. And it was hard not to think that if Tanaka himself is determined to spend this season as a junkballer, his life as New York's staff ace might not go well for him or the Yanks.

Skepticism wasn't the feeling when Tanaka began by striking out two of the first three Toronto hitters he faced in a crisp first inning. He made Toronto leadoff hitter Jose Reyes look especially silly on a swing-and-miss splitter that dove into the dirt.

But after that -- and never more than when Tanaka grooved a 2-1 pitch to Jays cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnacion, and Encarnacion drove a loud, long, two-run homer to left -- Tanaka was only ordinary at best in his four-inning, 82-pitch stint.

The Yankees offense was as weak as feared in their three-hit, 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays.

Something definitely feels amiss when Brett Gardner is the Yanks' best home run hitter of the day and Alex Rodriguez, in his first big-league game in 17 months, is the pesky, bottom-of-the-order hitter who scratched out a walk and single in his three at-bats as DH in the No. 7 spot. (This after A-Rod made the Jay-Z song "Public Service Announcement," which has the lyrics "Allow me to reintroduce myself ... fresh out the fryin' pan into the fire," his choice for his walk-up music.) Chase Headley, A-Rod's replacement at third, had a shaky day in the field, and Didi Gregorius, Derek Jeter's replacement at shortstop, made eyes roll with the very un-Jeter-like mental gaffe of trying and failing to steal third with the Yanks down by five in the eighth, Carlos Beltran on first and Mark Teixeira at the plate.

Not good.

All that happened, yet this was the worst: Not only was Tanaka's personal line five hits, five runs (four earned), two walks, six strikeouts and that home run to Encarnacion in the four innings he lasted, but also, when asked through his translator why he threw so few fastballs, Tanaka was concise.

"Because they were being hit," he said.

More specifically, "I'm obviously upset with the results."

Both Girardi and Tanaka tried to preach calmness about exactly what it all signifies. Both resorted to the usual reminders that it was only one game.

Yet both the anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest no, perhaps not. Tanaka's ordinariness is actually a budding trend.

As a rookie the past season, Tanaka didn't allow four runs in any of his first 16 starts. But he has now allowed at least four earned runs in four of his past five outings -- the two before he was diagnosed the past season with a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and his three since. (Two were late the past season, after he took doctors' advice to take a 10-week break and rehab, rather than having Tommy John surgery.)

For better or worse, on Monday, Tanaka also held true to his spring-training statement that he intended to throw less of his four-seam fastball, a pitch he uses higher in the strike zone as an important counterpoint when his slider is tilting down and sideways and his nasty splitter is falling off the table.

Tanaka mixed in only seven four-seamers among the 82 pitches he threw, according to FanGraphs.com, and ex-Yankees catcher Russell Martin smoked one of those for a two-RBI single.

The past season, Tanaka threw his four-seamer 25 percent of the time -- or about twice as often as he did Monday against the Jays.

And so, while both Tanaka and Girardi can insist otherwise, Tanaka's announced decision to change his pitching repertoire or, more recently, his pre-emptive statement over the weekend that people shouldn't expect the same velocity he had a year ago are going to create red flags and feed the suspicions folks such as Hall-of-Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez have raised.

During spring training, a few scouts were anonymously quoted saying Tanaka didn't look quite the same as before he hurt his elbow. Everyone agrees the elbow could completely blow out at any time. But Martinez is the most notable observer who has said on the record that Tanaka looks like he's pitching a little scared, like he's reluctant to cut loose so he avoids hurting himself worse.

"I'll be brave enough to say he's not completely healthy right now," Martinez, an MLB Network analyst, said five days ago on SiriusXM's Mad Dog Radio.

There's still time for Tanaka to adjust, of course. Plenty of pitchers do. He was never an upper-90s-mph fireballer anyway. Still, the Yankees probably didn't expect this wobble in approach from Tanaka, their seven-year, $175 million investment in salary and posting fees. He seemed almost infallible the past season -- before he got hurt. He's only 26 years old. He came to the U.S. after ripping off a long, regular-season unbeaten streak back in Japan, which made him the talk of baseball when the Yanks won the bidding war and he arrived emanating confidence.

When asked at his jam-packed introductory news conference about everything from the different size baseball to whether his skills could translate to the better hitters, Tanaka said the same thing over and over: I'm not worried about it.

Then he went out and pitched like it.

But now he's cutting back on his fastball, even before they hit it around?

"He was probably throwing it between 87 and 90 [miles per hour] -- that's more than hittable," Jays center fielder Dalton Pompey said, though he was sure to give Tanaka credit for his deceptiveness and five-pitch arsenal, as the Jays' Martin did.

Yes, it was just one day. But it was also a day that underscored that Tanaka's decision to forego Tommy John surgery will be a story until he pitches like it isn't.

As Girardi put it, still trying to stamp this brushfire out: "Predictions only matter if they come true."