It used to be that Michael Kay was as willing to cross the Canadian border as Snoop Dogg with a suitcase full of herb, but tonight’s game was big enough to pull even the reluctant Kay from New York into Toronto. A big game on April 4th? Not normally, but with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound for the Yankees, he being the splashiest Yankee acquisition since A-Rod, the most mysterious since Hideki Irabu, all eyes (and two Japanese networks) were on the Rogers Centre as the Yankees and Blue Jays met for the second series of the season.
If Tanaka was nervous about his debut, the Yankee offense gave him just what he needed with two runs in the top of the first. Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a booming double off the centerfield wall, then moved to third on a single through the hole by Brett Gardner. (I love Derek Jeter like we all do, but it sure is nice having those two speedsters atop the lineup.) A bloop single by Carlos Beltrán plated Ellsbury with the game’s first run, and two batters later Mark Teixeira poked a single into left to score Gardner. When Kelly Johnson singled sharply to load the bases with only one out, the Rogers Centre crowd grew restless, and it looked like the Yankees might break the game open before Tanaka even took the mound. But Ichiro struck out and Yangervis Solarte popped out down the right field line; even though any starting pitcher would happily take two first-inning runs, there was a sense that there should’ve been much more.
But it wouldn’t really matter, would it? Tanaka, after all, is unhittable. Reports from spring training were beyond phenomenal — hitters couldn’t identify his pitches, manager Joe Girardi raved about his poise, David Cone proclaimed his splitter the best on the planet — but how would he fare in a regular season game?
The answer came quickly. Our old friend Melky Cabrera led off for the Jays and watched two pitches, a strike and a ball, as if taking the measure of Tanaka. The next pitch came in flat and belt-high, and the result was predictable; Cabrera hammered it into the seats for a home run that split the lead and raised a few Yankee eyebrows. But Tanaka recovered to get Colby Rasmus to ground out before striking out José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación, and it looked like he had settled down.
Or perhaps not. Cabrera’s home run was the result of just a single bad pitch, but the next inning was more than that. Adam Lind grounded out for the first out, but the rest of the inning played out like this: single, single, error, two-run single. Tanaka again recovered, this time striking out Cabrera and Rasmus to get off the field, but the inning merits a second look.
It’s tempting to give Tanaka the benefit of the doubt. All three singles, as well as the ball that Teixeira gobbled up and fired into left field, were hit on the ground. Perhaps Tanaka was just unlucky. But take a closer look. Dioner Navarro was down 0-2 when he started the rally with the first single of the inning, Brett Lawrie was in a 1-2 hole before his single, and Ryan Goins was at 0-2 before watching a pitch for a ball and eventually grounding to Teixeira. With huge advantages over three consecutive hitters and an otherworldly splitter in his pocket, Tanaka failed to put away any of them. He paid the price and lost the lead.
It didn’t take long for the Yanks to get the lead right back for him. Ichiro came up with two outs and Brian Roberts on second. He grounded the ball to second and was signaled out, but even to the naked eye it looked like a missed call. Girardi bounced out of the dugout, challenged the call, and the umpires took just ninety seconds or so to get it right. So instead of getting off the field with a 3-2 lead, Toronto pitcher Dustin McGowan had to face one more hitter. It would be his last.
Solarte, who is making Eduardo Núñez rather forgettable, crushed a double to right center, easily scoring both Roberts and Ichiro to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead and send McGowan to the showers.
The Yankees pushed the advantage to 5-3 in the fourth (Brian McCann singled home Ellsbury, who had led off the inning with his second double of the game), but the real story was that Tanaka was finding his groove. He yielded a ringing double to Encarnación with one out in the third, but he worked around that easily, set down the Jays in order on just six pitches in the fourth, and cruised through the fifth, finishing off that frame with a strikeout of Bautista, the eighth consecutive Blue Jay to go down.
It was more of the same for Tanaka in the sixth and seventh. Encarnación reached to lead off the sixth but was promptly erased on a double play ball, and Tanaka skated the rest of the way, retiring the final five batters he faced.
The Yankee hitters also had a nice night, and they added a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to make the final score Yankees 7, Blue Jays 3. Ellsbury went 3 for 4 with two doubles, two runs, and two stolen bases; Gardner picked up two hits and a stolen base; Ichiro followed up Thursday’s two-hit night with three more singles; and Solarte had two doubles and three RBIs, but the story of the night was obviously Masahiro Tanaka. Yes, he struggled a bit at the outset, but he was dominant over his final five innings. He ended up pitching seven strong innings, giving up just two earned runs on six hits while striking out eight. One start does not an all-star make, but considering his stuff, his mound presence, and his demeanor, Tanaka looked like an ace on Friday night. I’m already looking forward to his next start.
[Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images]