Though Sonny Gray was acquired at the trade deadline, the Yankees' presumed ace at the beginning of the season is just as important to their chances to reach the postseason. They need Masahiro Tanaka at his best and he demonstrated Friday how he can come up big down the stretch.
Tanaka took a perfect game into the sixth inning, eventually giving up a single with two outs in the frame, but the right-hander was in cruise control for much of the night. Tanaka finished his eight-inning, one-run performance with 14 strikeouts -- a career-high -- which prompted praise from his manager.
"I thought he had great control of his fastball, slider and split tonight and had good movement on the pitches," Joe Girardi said after the game Friday.
Girardi is correct in that Tanaka's off-speed offerings have been much better of late, but the slider has been among his best pitches all season per metrics. Tanaka was quite pleased with the pitch Friday despite it not working well before the start.
"It wasn't particularly good in the bullpen, but once I got out to the mound it started to work," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I was able to use that aggressively along with my other pitches."
During his last several starts, Tanaka seems to have turned the corner on a disappointing season. The change is evident to Girardi.
"His last six or seven starts have been pretty good and that's encouraging."
It's true, Tanaka has been better over the last seven starts. His 3.06 ERA (3.06 FIP) during the span is the best of any other such string of starts this season. The key to Tanaka's recent success has been his ability to deliver quality results with each of his pitches. Tanaka has regained a feel for each of his pitches and because of it he may have turned his season around.
After reviewing what was going wrong in Tanaka's starts before the upswing, his famed split-finger fastball was not consistently delivering as it had in year's past. Tanaka's bread-and-butter pitch was registering a negative pitch value according to FanGraphs. Tanaka's four-seam fastball was also a poor pitch, but he was getting decent results from the slider and curveball.
Beginning with an eight-inning scoreless start against Texas on June 23, Tanaka has been able to build off an improving split-finger fastball (once again his best performing pitch) making each of the other offerings that much better. On Friday, Tanaka recorded positive measures from each pitch, which is surely a good sign.
The question is whether Tanaka can keep it going. He has had glimpses of these types of games along the way this season -- a 13-strikeout performance against the A's in late-May and a complete game shutout against the Red Sox almost exactly one month earlier -- but then failed to build on them.
The interesting thing regarding Tanaka's outing on Friday is that it was against a team that seemingly had his number. In his previous two starts against Tampa Bay this season, Tanaka was manhandled for a total of 13 runs in just 5 2/3 innings. Tanaka remembered this going in and commented on the importance of a good outing Friday against a team the Yankees are battling for a playoff spot.
"I haven't been pitching well against this particular team, especially this season, so I wanted to go out there and pitch well," Tanaka said. "I was really glad that I was able to do that."
Tanaka building on Friday's performance is necessary for the Yankees, who would benefit immensely with Tanaka pitching at his peak. Tanaka has the ability to shut down good offenses and he has the mettle to pitch under pressure in a tough environment.
"You want to get him on a roll because he is really important to us," Girardi said. "It seems like he is on the right track and we just have to keep him there."
Tanaka's remaining starts this season also hold some personal significance. Tanaka can opt out of his seven-year, $155 million contract at the end of the season. At the moment, it might be hard to envision Tanaka leaving $67 million on the table to take a chance on grabbing more.
However, should Tanaka use Friday's effort as a catalyst for the rest of the season and he helps push the Yankees into the playoffs, it becomes less difficult to envision Tanaka hitting the free agent market.
Tanaka looked like a confident pitcher on the mound Friday and more importantly he sounded like one in the Yankees' clubhouse after the game. Things are working well for Tanaka and he understands he is an important piece to the Yankees' puzzle. Now, that each of Tanaka's pitches are coming together, he seems poised to make good on preseason expectations