Masahiro Tanaka has proven his ability to rise to the occasion as October pressures mount. But the Red Sox most likely realize the right-hander’s past accomplishments hold little weight on this new stage, against their lineup.
While Tanaka owns a commendable 1.44 ERA in four career postseason starts, he posted a bloated 7.58 ERA in four outings against Boston this season, allowing Red Sox batters to feast at a .345 clip in 19 total innings. Plus, of the 14 position players on Boston’s ALDS roster, they’ve collectively hit 14 home runs and driven in 40 runs (303 at-bats) with Tanaka on the mound.
Suffice to say the Yankees, who are currently facing an 0-1 deficit to their archrival in a best-of-five division series, need Tanaka to deliver in Game 2 on Saturday night at Fenway Park.
“You know, I think I have an idea that it’s going to be intense,” Tanaka told reporters Friday via his translator. “But me, personally, I haven’t experienced the Yankees versus Red Sox playoff atmosphere yet. So you know at this point it’s a guess, but I’m sure it’s going to be intense.
“It’s absolutely an honor [to pitch in this series]. Definitely an honor to be part of something like this. I think it would be even better if I can go out there and perform and lead the team to a victory.”
Entering September 20, Tanaka had been the Yankees’ most reliable starter since the All-Star break. His second-half ERA sat at 2.09, and he had allowed just one run in his previous 21 innings of work. So when the team was in the process of determining which starter was best-suited for the wild card game, Tanaka resembled a safe choice.
But in his final two regular season appearances, Tanaka couldn’t pitch past the fourth inning, as he surrendered eight runs and 14 hits across eight total frames. Although manager Aaron Boone insisted Tanaka’s poor finish didn’t influence his decision to hand Luis Severino the ball in the one-game playoff, there are reasons to believe otherwise.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Tanaka said his split-finger fastball has regained its sharpness. And when that pitch is effective, opposing hitters often flail.
“I think it’s at a good place right now,” said Tanaka, who went 12-6 with a 3.75 ERA in 27 starts this year. “You know, since I had my last outing, it’s been a while. So I had that time to make the necessary adjustments… I like where my splitter is at at this time. And hopefully I can have that pitch with me tomorrow when I go into the game.”
Last October, Tanaka was virtually unhittable. But he knows this upcoming challenge pales in comparison to the others he’s confronted.
“I think that experience does help, and maybe you rely on it a little bit,” he said. “But my mentality right now is just go into this postseason freshly, as a new experience.”
Tanaka will oppose David Price (0-8, 5.74 ERA in nine playoff starts) in Game 2 with first pitch scheduled for 8:15 p.m.