As Masahiro Tanaka continues his rise back to “ace status,” he’s making the New York Yankees a scary threat in the AL pennant race.
Through the 28-year-old’s first 14 starts, he had lost eight of them thanks to allowing 54 runs in 76.2 innings of work (6.34 ERA). Batters also slashed .293/.342/.568 off him during that span with 21 home runs — which was tied with Ricky Nolasco for the second-most homers surrendered by any Major League pitcher.
This was utterly shocking because Tanaka supposed to be the “sure-thing” guy in terms of giving the Yankees dominance and length. Yet, his ERA of over six and just seven starts in which he completed at least six innings was the polar opposite of that.
The narrative just had to change. Sure, Luis Severino is having a season that is earning him the title of “ace,” CC Sabathia is continuing his renaissance and the addition of Sonny Gray brings a whole new dynamic to that unit, but the Yankees would have very little chance of staying relevant if a flop was coming from their $153-million investment every fifth day.
Luckily for the Yankees’ sake, the real Masahiro Tanaka stood up. And the stormy year for the righty has become calm right in the nick of time.
In 11 starts since June 23, Tanaka has gone 5-3 with a 2.92 ERA. That stretch, which includes 79 strikeouts in 71 innings and an opponent’s slash line of .218/.264/.351, has allowed his season ERA to take a nose dive from 6.34 to 4.69.
Not only is he convincing us that his early season funk was nothing more than a fluke, but he’s also taking the rotation to a level no one expected to see the 2017 Yankees to reach.
Since Tanaka turned his season around on June 23, New York’s rotation ERA sits at 3.97 — the sixth-best in Major League Baseball.
Are you surprised? When that type of production joins a rotation that consists of the starter the third-best ERA in the AL (Luis Severino), the starter with 11 consecutive starts in which he has allowed two earn runs-or-fewer (Sonny Gray) and one who has had a sub-three ERA since mid-May (CC Sabathia), an ascension is all you should expect. And moving forward, the possibilities are endless.
The first-place Boston Red Sox, thanks to being swept in a four-game series against the Baltimore Orioles, have just a 2.5 game lead over New York in the divisional race as of August 28. They are slated to face Tanaka, Severino, Jaime Garcia and Sonny Gray in the four-game series in the Bronx starting on Thursday.
With the offense playing the way they have been (fifth-most runs scored in MLB this month), a superb bullpen and rotation that has the ability to keep the momentum rolling, there is a prime opportunity to take some control in their division chances.
Just last week, after a series loss to those same Red Sox, everyone seemed to focus on the Wild Card game rather than the AL East race. With Tanaka off the disabled list and back to what manager Joe Girardi and Co. know he can be, the dream of hoping from the do-or-die Wild Card game right into the American League Division Series for the first time since 2012 is now a genuine possibility.
Offensive weapons such as Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius, a rotation that has allowed three earned runs-or-fewer in 14 straight starts (since 8/13) along with a bullpen that features Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson is a team no postseason contender wants to face.
You’re only as good as tomorrow’s starting pitcher. And the return of Tanaka has brought the 2017 Yankees to a level no one expected them to be: prime World Series contenders.