Masahiro Tanaka carving legacy of premium playoff magic for Yankees as relic from lost free agent class
It cost $155 million to bring Masahiro Tanaka to the Bronx.
In 2014, the deal delivered the New York Yankees a starter that has dominated playoff opponents at a historic consistency, while frequently making regular season headlines for inconsistency.
Tanaka’s first playoff start, the 2015 wild card game against the Houston Astros, saw the seven-figure pitcher take the mound as one of many high-priced free agents from the club’s signing spree the year prior, one that included Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and the currently MIA Jacoby Elsbury. He held the up-start Astros to two earned runs over five innings with three walks and three strikeouts. It was also his first postseason loss.
The problem was Dallas Keuchel versus the Yankees veteran offense. The first Yankee hit in that game didn’t even come until 22-year-old September callup Greg Bird blooped a single down the right-field line in the eighth inning. Tanaka had been pulled from the game at that point but could still be saved from a loss. The Bird single was enough to spur a rally that brought Alex Rodriguez to the plate as the go-ahead run.
It was the last meaningful postseason at-bat in the Bronx prior to the baby bomber youth movement that shed nearly all of Tanaka’s large-salary peers.
His next postseason start came under the pressure of facing elimination at home against Cleveland, coming off a career-worst regular season, as the second-highest paid player on a much younger and cheaper roster.
“They paid $155 million to bring him over from Japan three years ago,” said FS1 broadcaster Matt Vasgerzian after a Tanaka strikeout ended the fourth inning of a scoreless 2017 ALDS Game 3. “And those are exactly the type of moments they bought!”
Once again he had no run support, but this time, he dealt seven scoreless innings of 3-hit ball with one walk and seven strikeouts. Once again it was Bird that provided the only meaningful offene, sending a ball down that same right field line as he did two years ago, but this time into the upper deck for a game-winning home run. It saved the Yankees season and delivered Tanaka his first October win (there will be no Bird this October).
That postseason run ended with Tanaka getting two more starts, both against Keuchel in the ALCS for their second and third playoff matchups. He lost to Keuchel in Houston, but dominated the matchup two games later in New York with a playoff-career-best eight strikeouts.
Even the juggernaut that was the 2018 Boston Red Sox suffered their first postseason loss at the hands of Tanaka in the Yankees only win of last year’s ALDS.
Now, still holding the Yankees’ second-largest salary, he is the longest tenured pitcher on the postseason roster. For a franchise that made the switch from a high-priced veteran free agent core to building through cheap, young and homegrown prospects, and one that has historically seen more of those free agents sink than swim in postseason spotlight, Tanaka is a gleaming exception.
After his Game 2 performance against the Twins on Saturday, his 1.54 postseason ERA (minimum six starts) is the second-lowest since the induction of the stat, only to hall-of-famer Sandy Koufax. If he maintains these numbers through a potential World Series run, he could match his seniority and contractual value as the World Series MVP.
He’s carried a team to a championship series before.
As a tall teenager in Japan, 6 feet 2 inches, Tanaka had close-cropped hair and a wide expressive smile. According to a 2014 New York Times article by Barry Bearak, he pitched for Komazawa Daigaku-fuzoku Tomakomai High School in the championship known as Koshien, an event in Japan as consequential as the World Series
His school was located in a northern region and his home field froze during the winter months. He and his teammates would even pat down snow before games for a truer roll of ground balls. As the greater tri-state area continues to experience frequent cold fronts, Yankees fans can take heed knowing their ace pitcher has postseason experience pitching through such elements.
In 2006, he threw every pitch in his high school’s run through seven regional qualifying games. In the 48,000-seat Koshien Stadium nicknamed Taiseidō, translated to “The Great Cathedral” he faced the two-time defending champion Komazawa Daigaku-fuzoku Tomakomai High School.
He started the first four of a six-game series of that year’s Koshien. He felt sickly before Game 5, suffering from intestinal inflammation, and deferred the start to a teammate. But then, in the third inning, his coach trekked out the teenage Tanaka in relief of a scoreless tie … one that would later manifest as a 15-inning 1-1 tie with both he and opposing pitcher Saito finishing the game.
Tanaka threw 165 pitches that day, his opponent, 178, a mark that would be classified as child abuse in the United States. Some MLB managers have pulled their starters as early as the third inning in this postseason.
Tanaka has had a limited but existing injury history since coming to New York. But, if there is any lesson to be learned from his postseason resume, both in highs school and the majors, it is that he has the fortitude to outlast his opposition when it matters most.
As October continues, opponents like the Astros, the Dodgers and even the Nationals or Cardinals may await, opponents with some of the most vaunted starting pitchers in all of baseball. The Yankees will look to Tanaka as their entree in that field if they make it that far.
They’ll be looking to a pitcher that has a resume of being elevated by the moment and the quality of opposition. He will also do so with the pressure of being a high-priced veteran with two years left under contract, he’s not just in high school this time. The most important baseball of Tanaka’s life is ahead of him this October.
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