Should the New York Yankees make the playoffs or even win the AL East, Tanaka and A-Rod will largely be responsible for October baseball returning to New York.
By Bryan Pol
In the top of the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night, reformed slugger Alex Rodriguez, most recently recognized for eclipsing 3,000 hits on Sunday with a brief ceremony at Yankee Stadium (nearly three months after the fact), hit a solo home run, his 32nd of the season, to put the Yankees up 1-0 and lead the charge in New York’s quest for a playoff berth.
The night before, with New York down 1-0 in the top of the ninth, facing Rays closer Brad Boxberger with two outs and Brett Gardner on second, Rodriguez roped a double to the alley in deep right-center at Tropicana Field, evening the score and setting up a three-run Slade Heathcott homer that would ultimately be the deciding factor of a 4-1 Yankee victory, one in which the Bombers were held hitless in 7 2/3 innings against Erasmo Ramirez.
A-Rod, no longer playing the role of heel, is having his best season since 2010, clubbing 32 homers and compiling 83 RBI, all while managing an OPS of .860 and an OPS+ of 137, his best mark since leading New York to a World Series title in 2009 after a torrid run in the postseason of that year.
Do not forget that A-Rod was out of baseball for over a full year, not having faced live pitching before spring training since September 25, 2013.
With runners in scoring position, A-Rod has hit .273 (he is a shade better with two outs and RISP, hitting .278), plating 48 runs in all. While he has cooled off in the season’s second half (he has hit a measly .222), Rodriguez has carried the Yankees in Mark Teixeira’s absence, delivering countless big hits when the Bombers need them most, even passing the Yankee first baseman’s team lead in home runs with Tuesday night’s solo shot.
While players like Jacoby Ellsbury have floundered (the Yankee centerfielder, who started the season on a six-week tear, injured his knee in May and has not been the same since) and others like Brett Gardner have cooled off since the All-Star Break, A-Rod has accomplished more than even the loftiest prognostications heading into 2015, aiding the likes of Carlos Beltran, Greg Bird, and Brian McCann, who have all hit around Rodriguez’s spot in the heart of the Yankee order.
After a poor month of August, in which A-Rod hit only .153, Rodriguez is back on track in September, hitting .261 for the month thus far, accumulating six home runs in only 51 plate appearances, with nearly every home run meaning something for his team’s chances.
Furthermore, in 185 plate appearances with his team behind, A-Rod is at his best, hitting .275 with a .909 OPS, belting 14 home runs and accruing 27 RBI in those times at the dish.
Should the Yankees ultimately make the postseason for the first time since 2012, it will largely be in light of Rodriguez’s surge.
And then there is Masahiro Tanaka, who has emerged as the Yankees true ace despite what Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino have accomplished in 2015.
In three September starts, Tanaka is 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA, beating Toronto for the second time of the season over this past weekend. In 2015, Tanaka is 2-2 with a 2.42 ERA versus the Jays, with his only complete game, managed in 4-1 victory, coming against them in a crucial August series. Remarkably, Tanaka has thrown two consecutive starts on four days’ rest, and will likely have his start pushed past this weekend’s series against the Mets so that he may instead square off against the Jays with a chance to reclaim a lead in the AL East.
Tanaka’s September numbers are despite an iffy start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, in which he allowed four runs over 6 1/3 innings despite his club handing him a 11-1 lead in the second inning.
Given Severino’s poor start this past Friday and Eovaldi being shelved with elbow inflammation for two weeks, Tanaka has once again risen to the top of the Yankee rotation.
Heading into September, Tanaka had a 3.73 ERA and, because of his masterful work in the last two starts (he has allowed but one run in his past fifteen innings), he has shaved nearly a half a run off his ERA total, and is now down to 3.40 on the season, the best mark on the staff (while Severino has a 3.35 ERA, he achieved this average over only 37.2 innings to Tanaka’s 143 frames).
Should the season come down to a one-game, wild card elimination game, against either Texas’s Cole Hamels or Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, there is no doubt Tanaka will be called upon to get New York to the ALDS. And he has help in the form of Alex Rodriguez, who still has much to prove to his biggest detractors.