All of Tanaka’s strikeouts came on swinging third strikes against the slider or splitter, the pitch that is Tanaka’s great separator. Some starters, like Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman, throw a hybrid splitter/changeup, a pitch thrown with the hand turned counterclockwise at the end. Few throw a pure splitter, with that vicious downward bite, like Tanaka.
“It’s pretty tough, because that pitch looks like a strike for so long,” Oakland’s Khris Davis said. “You’ve just got to hang in there off him.”
The theory that links splitters to elbow trouble stalks Tanaka, even though it is supported mostly by anecdotal, not medical, evidence. Yet Tanaka has established himself as something close to elite, and when stars perform far below their standards, it is reasonable to wonder if they are healthy.
Concern over Tanaka’s elbow has lingered since the revelation nearly three years ago that he had a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. That sobering news derailed his breakout as a Yankees rookie in 2014, when Tanaka looked like the best pitcher in the American League. The elbow bothered him enough to need a bone spur removed in October 2015, and he missed his final two starts last year with a strained flexor mass.
Maybe, just maybe, Tanaka was wearing down again?
“What sign would you say that he is hurt?” Girardi said before batting practice Friday. “Ineffectiveness? So if a guy goes 0 for 20, are we to assume that he’s hurt? I’m not trying to make fun of this, but there’s no drop-off in velocity, there’s no extra treatment, he hasn’t said he couldn’t do a bullpen, he hasn’t said he couldn’t take a start.
“And we look for signs, too. There’s been none of that. It’s been a struggle, and it’s been the consistency of his pitches. There’s nothing that leads us to believe there’s an injury. It’s just inconsistency.”
Tanaka did not say much of anything after the game, declining to elaborate on the mechanical changes he made after his last two starts, in which he allowed 14 earned runs and recorded only 14 outs.
“I’d rather kind of keep that to myself, if I may,” he said through an interpreter.
Tanaka was working again with Austin Romine, his catcher for four of his five wins this season, including a 97-pitch, three-hit shutout in Boston on April 27. Girardi defended the regular catcher, Gary Sanchez, but suggested that Romine could work with Tanaka again next time.
If that is the biggest issue around Tanaka, the Yankees will take it. Larry Rothschild, the pitching coach, said he had watched video with Tanaka and determined that Tanaka was opening his front shoulder too soon and rushing his body toward the plate.
“As long as he leaves the rubber the right way and stays in line, everything else takes care of itself,” Rothschild said, adding later, “The success he’s had here, I don’t need to see one start to think he can be successful.”
The Yankees did not exactly need a vintage Tanaka performance. Tanaka, C. C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery have made every start. The regular lineup is mostly intact and productive. This is peacetime in the Bronx.
But without an ace, there would not be much hope of getting very far. Tanaka has filled that role for the Yankees ever since they signed him for seven years and $155 million — plus a $20 million posting fee to his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles — in January 2014.
The Tanaka years have been unfulfilling, and they will soon reach a crossroads if he exercises an opt-out clause after this season. Pitching with that bone spur in the 2015 wild-card game against Houston, Tanaka lasted just five innings and lost. That is the Yankees’ only playoff appearance with him.
Yet Tanaka has gone 44-20 for the Yankees, befitting his status of ace, even if wins and losses can be misleading for pitchers. That record includes Friday’s game, a cruel defeat that should feel like a win everywhere but the box score.
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