Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 28, 2017

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes It Rains

Sports, like life, are not always fair; a truism as applicable to the Great Game as any other athletic endeavor. The Yankees and their fans were reminded of that on Friday, three hours after a nervous crowd of just over 39,000 filed into the Stadium on a cool evening to kick off Memorial Day weekend. While the visiting Oakland Athletics arrived in the Bronx with a record a few games below .500, their offense was potent, with the second highest number of home runs in the American League, just behind the home squad. Taking the mound to face those sluggers was Masahiro Tanaka, the putative ace of New York’s rotation.

That Tanaka was starting was the source of the crowd’s anxiety. While he entered the game with a winning record of 5-3, his ERA was a grotesque 6.56. Of his nine previous starts this season, three were horrific. On Opening Day in Tampa, he gave up seven earned runs while lasting less than three innings. That looked like an aberration over the next seven weeks as his performances ranged from solid to excellent, including a scintillating three hit, complete game shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park in late April. But Tanaka’s two most recent starts made the Opening Day debacle seem almost acceptable. Against Houston he allowed eight runs and four homers in just an inning and two-thirds. Then in his last start he only made it through three frames against the Rays, surrendering six earned runs while watching three more balls sail into the seats.

While both Tanaka and the Yankees insisted that his problems were mechanical, the obvious concern among fans was that he was hiding an injury; although “hiding” seems manifestly inaccurate given the plainly visible results. But the reasoning of fans is understandable. In 2014 Tanaka’s stellar first season pitching in this country was cut short when he was found to have a partial tear of the UCL in his throwing arm. The decision was to treat it with rest rather than lose a year to Tommy John surgery, but Tanaka has never again been quite as dominating as he was that first summer. He also had surgery to remove a bone spur after the 2015 season, and was shut down late last year with an arm strain.

Yet if not consistently dominant Tanaka has still by and large been very good. Since the starting rotation was the biggest area of doubt about this year’s Yankee team when the season began, a run of faltering performances by the leader of that rotation was bound to cause deep concern among fans who have been treated to the unexpected pleasure of seeing their team in first place through the first eight weeks of the longest season.

While Tanaka’s fastball can touch 94 on the radar gun, the strengths of his repertoire are a pair of off speed pitches, a slider and a splitter, both of which normally display tremendous late movement. The slider breaks down and away from a right-handed hitter and thus in on the hands of a lefty. The splitter lacks the slider’s lateral movement, but drops vertically much more dramatically. In both of his recent poor outings, as well as on Opening Day, Tanaka’s key pitches stayed straight and opposing hitters teed off like it was batting practice.

Tanaka wasted no time in helping to settle jittery nerves. Center fielder Rajai Davis, leading off for the A’s, flailed at a splitter that finished in the dirt, well below his bat, for an opening strike out. Sandwiched around a double by Jed Lowrie, Tanaka also fanned Matt Joyce and Khris Davis, both of whom swung and missed at lively sliders for strike three. The 2nd inning was more of the same, with Ryon Healy and Trevor Plouffe becoming Tanaka’s fourth and fifth strikeout victims. Catcher Stephen Vogt then grounded out to second, the first Oakland out of the game by means other than a strikeout. Tanaka added two more K’s in the 3rd and another pair in the 4th.

Finally, in the 5th inning he retired the side without benefit of home plate umpire Tim Timmons ringing anyone up. The Yankees’ ace wasn’t perfect; in addition to Lowrie’s 1st inning double Tanaka allowed a pair of singles in the 4th and a double in the 5th. But the growing sense in the stands was that he was in control of this game and had put his recent troubles behind him. Despite that, the contest itself was still very much in doubt, for the Yankees offense had decided to start the holiday weekend by taking the night off. Oakland starter Sean Manaea was not nearly as dominant as his Yankee counterpart, but the game was still scoreless.

It remained that way into the 8th inning. Tanaka began the frame facing Mark Canha, the A’s designated hitter. He quickly got ahead 1-2, but then the batter made him work. Canha fouled the fourth pitch back, then looked at two outside the strike zone to run the count full. Tanaka threw a splitter, a slider, and a sinker, all of which Canha managed to get a piece of to stay alive. Finally, on the tenth pitch of the at bat, Canha whiffed on an 87 mile per hour slider. It was Tanaka’s thirteenth strikeout, a career high.

The next batter, Oakland shortstop Adam Rosales, singled to center on Tanaka’s 111th pitch of the game, and Yankee manager Joe Girardi came to fetch his starter. As Girardi walked to the mound the applause steadily built as fans came to their feet. Tanaka exited to a loud and prolonged standing ovation.
Those fans were barely back in their seats before it all went to hell, thanks to the Great Game’s rules and an ineffective Tyler Clippard. Entering a scoreless contest, reliever Clippard was preoccupied with the runner at first. He threw over three times, and his last toss was wild, sailing out of the reach of first baseman Chris Carter. By the time the ball was retrieved Rosales had scampered to third. Rajai Davis then chopped a slow grounder to third baseman Chase Headley, who threw home for the out on Rosales.

The play was a fielder’s choice, reflecting the fact that Headley could have thrown to first to eliminate Davis, allowing Rosales to score. Tanaka didn’t face Davis, but under the rules the runner at first had taken the place of Rosales. Then when Clippard allowed the next three batters to reach base and two runs to score, Tanaka was potentially on the hook for the loss. That became official half an hour later, when the final score read 4-1 Oakland. The go-ahead run in the person of Davis was Tanaka’s, and the A’s took a lead of 2-0 in that inning. Although New York covered the one run charged to the team’s ace, the Yankees never erased the A’s lead from that inning. Thanks to the rules the “L” was hung on Tanaka even though he had nothing to do with the second run.

The phrase “tough luck loss” has been a part of the Great Game since long before Friday night. Masahiro Tanaka is certainly not the first pitcher to be saddled with one, nor will he be the last. Still as disappointed Yankees fans headed for the exits, they did so thinking that on this night their newly restored ace deserved a better result.  But end results are not always fair.


  1. Your quote from Bull Durham certainly applies to Tanaka. Tomorrow’s another day.

    • Thanks Allan. I think of the quote often as it is painted on the outfield fence at the public ballfield that sits in the footprint of the old Yankee Stadium. Your last sentence is very appropriate. On Saturday afternoon the Yankees pretty much repaid the favor to Oakland. The A’s starter took a no-hitter into the 6th, and New York only managed two hits on the day. But the first was a two-run homer that provided the winning margin. Tomorrow was indeed another day!

      Thanks again,

      Michael Cornelius


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