HOUSTON —This was not the outing for Masahiro Tanaka to work with what he believed to be anything less than his maximum stuff on the mound, even if he squeezed the most out of himself for as long as possible on Friday night.
With Dallas Keuchel typically mowing down the Yankees again like a modern-day postseason version of Christy Mathewson, Curt Schilling and Madison Bumgarner rolled into one, Tanaka believes he needed to be even better than he was for six innings in a tight 2-1 loss to the Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS.
“I think the stuff was bad, and I think I had to execute pitches, especially when runners were on base,” Tanaka said through his translator. “I feel like I wasn’t able to do that, so I have to do a better job of that next time.”
Perhaps that’s true when compared to the 15-strikeout gem the Japanese hurler twirled in his final start of the regular season — or the 1-0 victory he boosted the Yanks to with their season crumbling in Game 3 of the AL division series last weekend following their disheartening loss two nights earlier in Cleveland.
But Tanaka, who got away from using his signature splitter because he thought “it wasn’t as good as the outing in the ALDS,” was being overly critical of himself after holding the highest-scoring team in baseball to two runs — both in the fourth inning — on four hits.
It’s hard to quibble with Masahiro Tanaka’s outing.
The Yankee lineup actually provided itself with multiple opportunities to scratch out a run or two against Keuchel during what turned out to be his latest statistical shutdown of them, lowering his head-to-head ERA for his career to 1.09 over eight starts against them with seven scoreless innings.
Slow-footed Greg Bird, most notably, was cut down at home plate on Aaron Judge’s single to left for the final out of the fifth, with Joe Girardi losing his first replay challenge since his “I screwed up” gaffe in Cleveland.
Either way, Girardi and the Yanks gladly will take their chances with that sort of performance from the $ 155 million righty or the rest of their starters in any postseason setting, but especially after Tanaka had been so wildly inconsistent throughout much of the regular slate, finishing 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA.
Tanaka matched zeroes with Keuchel for the first three innings, despite acknowledging thinking “there were a few” hard-hit balls he got away with in the early going, sending centerfielder Aaron Hicks back to the deepest parts of the park to track down.
There should be zero trepidation now in handling Masahiro Tanaka the ball again in Game.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
But pesky AL MVP frontrunner Jose Altuve — who heard such spirited chants from the hometown faithful all night long, despite personally endorsing Judge before the game — legged out an infield single before swiping second in the fourth.
With little trust or effectiveness in his splitter as an out pitch, Tanaka, who only fanned three batters among his 18 outs, got burned for run-scoring hits by Carlos Correa on a hanging slider and by Yuli Gurriel on a fat fastball down the middle.
That turned out to be just enough.
“Especially early on, (Keuchel) and Tanaka were going back and forth and nothing was really happening. It was very quiet,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “Both pitchers were locked in, and then Jose gets on and steals second…What started out as an incredibly tight pitchers’ duel, we felt like we had a huge lead at 2-0. Even though we know it’s very, very small.”
Yankees vs. Astros 2017 American League Championship Series
It felt that way primarily because of Keuchel, even if Tanaka stressed “you have to go out and do what you need to do. You’re focused on executing the pitches that you need to execute.”
Tanaka was relieved by Chad Green after completing the sixth — despite the righty getting drilled at the start of that inning on the inner left leg by Josh Reddick’s lined comebacker. Girardi noted he hooked his starter “because I thought he gave us everything he had and I thought it was time to make a change. But just another great outing.”
Statistically, at least, and encouragingly, this marks three strong ones in succession for the Yanks’ erstwhile ace.
There should be zero trepidation now in handling Tanaka the ball again in Game 5 at the Stadium, where he has thrived in the second half, assuming the Bombers do not get swept.
“I’m very confident,” he said. “I believe in this team, that we’ll come back, and I will prepare as if I’m pitching again in a couple of days.”
Tanaka will try to prepare for the return of his maximum stuff for the next time, but it’s hard to quibble with this sort of outing without it, even against Keuchel.