Masahiro Tanaka
(Photo: Ron Schwane, AP)

Masahiro Tanaka is going home to Japan, so let’s look back on his best moments wearing a New York Yankees uniform.

Masahiro Tanaka was only with the New York Yankees for seven years and yet, it feels like the end of an era.

Tanaka wasn’t in New York for a long time – especially by Yankees standards – but it was certainly a memorable seven years. He never managed to win that long-elusive World Series ring, nor was he the ace his $150 million contract implied he could be.

Tanaka was, however, consistent and reliable as can be. Going 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA in seven years is just the tip of the iceberg. Tanaka could also be counted on as a “big game” pitcher, turning in stellar performances either in the playoffs or when the standings were tight. He was to the Yankees what Hiroshi Tanahashi is to Japanese professional wrestling, just a hard worker who can be counted on to bring his best effort  day in and day out. He truly did live up to his nickname, Masa-hero.

But for now, as Tanaka heads back to Japan, all Yankees fans can do is look back on his best moments in pinstripes. These five, in particular, stand out the most.

No. 5: Shutting down the Mets.
May 14, 2014

Masahiro Tanaka debuted to great fanfare in 2014 and seemed the lone consistent player as the Yankees played .500 ball. This quickly endeared him to the Bronx’s demanding fans, especially this performance against the crosstown rival New York Mets.

Tanaka took the mound in Flushing in just his eighth MLB start and held the Mets to just four hits in a 4-0 shutout. He struck out eight Mets hitters and issued no walks.

Even for a meaningless mid-May game, Tanaka passed a key test as a New York Yankees rookie: always beat the pesky Mets. In pitching a shutout as a 25-year-old rookie, he proved he definitely belonged.

No. 4: The 15 strikeout game.
Sept. 29, 2017

Tanaka struggled to a 4.74 ERA in 2017 thanks to allowing more home runs, but was able to finish strong in his last start of the regular season. Facing the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium, the righty was in prime ace form as hitters just couldn’t solve him.

Seven shutout innings later, Tanaka notched a career-high 15 strikeouts. No one realized it at the time, but this was exactly what he needed with the postseason looming. He couldn’t get himself on a roll all year, but this game boosted his confidence headed into October. Even though he was never much of a strikeout pitcher despite a respectable career K/9 of 8.5, this game showed him he could still pitch like an ace when needed.

Cut to the 2017 playoffs, and Masahiro Tanaka posted a 0.90 ERA. But more about that later!

No. 3: Shutting out the Rays.
June 17, 2019

The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays just don’t like each other. The rivalry is no longer limited to their annual race for the AL East crown. No, at least once a year, the Yankees and Rays can be counted on for some bad blood of epic proportions.

Masahiro Tanaka, however, never got his hands dirty with the Rays. He let his pitching do the talking and tossed a pair of shutouts against Tampa Bay in his career. The first one was great in its own right, as Tanaka silenced the Rays in front of their home “crowd” at Tropicana Field.

The second, however, was even better. It was only some months after CC Sabathia’s lauded “That’s for you, b**ch” outburst the prior season. Now, back home at Yankee Stadium, Tanaka stuck it to the Rays even more. He struck out 10 in yet another complete game and allowed just two hits.

It was another example of if the team was ever in doubt, that’s when Tanaka amped things up to 11.

No 2: Silencing the Astros’ bats.
Oct. 18, 2017

Before we knew the Houston Astros cheated their way to the World Series in 2017, they were considered a dangerous team with a lineup that couldn’t be touched. The New York Yankees lost to this team in the 2017 ALCS, but received a moral victory in proving the Astros’ bats mortal.

The defining moment of proving such came in Game 5, when Masahiro Tanaka took the mound for his second start of the series. He pitched well in Houston in Game 1, but took the loss as the Yankees managed just one run of support in a 2-1 loss. Now, he had a chance to give New York a 3-2 series edge.

Well, Tanaka didn’t just give the Yankees that edge. He flat-out dominated the game, tossing seven shutout innings and striking out eight Houston batters. On top of that, this was one of the few times the usually ice-cold Tanaka visibly showed emotion on the mound. He roared after each clutch out.

The fans, however, always roared louder.

No. 1: Keeping Cleveland in check.
Oct. 8, 2017

We spoke earlier of Tanaka’s big-game confidence, and also how a strong close to the 2017 regular season primed a strong playoff performance. Tanaka took the mound in Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, and fans got a great combination of the two.

The Yankees lost the first two games of the series in Cleveland and faced an absolute must-win at home. Even with Tanaka’s poise, this was a tall order for someone who had been streaky all season. Surely, his career-worst 1.8 HR/9 would sink the Yankees against a powerful Cleveland lineup?

The nervous ones were happily wrong as the raucous New York crowd was treated to an evening of vintage Masahiro Tanaka. He silenced the Indians’ bats for seven shutout innings and allowed just three hits to go with eight strikeouts. In the bottom of the seventh, Greg Bird’s home run put the Yankees ahead for good en route to a 1-0 win.

Simply put, Tanaka went out and pitched his absolute best when the Yankees needed it most. The team had its back against the wall, and he managed to extend the series with a legendary performance.

Oh, and it also helped that the Yankees later won Games 4 and 5 and advanced to the ALCS.

Thanks for the memories, Masa-hero. We’ll miss you!

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.