Masahiro Tanaka looked lost for most of 2017. He owned a disastrous 4.74 ERA with a 4.34 FIP. The right-hander struggled across the board, but he proved especially bad at keeping the ball in the park. His 1.77 HR/9 stood out as the third worst mark in all of baseball among qualified pitchers. The prolonged struggles led to several of us at Pinstripe Alley questioning what happened to him.
Thankfully, that pitcher disappeared. Tanaka has been nothing short of brilliant this postseason. He’s served as the ace of an impressive starting rotation, one that has posted a 2.29 ERA following Luis Severino’s disaster start in the Wild Card Game. Think about that for a second. Tanaka leads a pack of starters who are firing on all cylinders. The Yankees have a staff of dynamic pitchers, but somehow the crafty right-hander has separated himself.
Heading into last night’s start, Tanaka owned a 1.38 ERA across 13 innings in the 2017 postseason. He lowered that even further by firing seven innings of shutout ball. Tanaka worked into the occasional bit of trouble, but otherwise, he looked masterful. The potent Astros’ lineup struck out eight times against him last night. This is the same offense that boasted the lowest strikeout rate in all of baseball.
Part of his success came from the ability to crank up the velocity later in the game. Earlier this week, Kento Mizuno pointed out that Tanaka relied heavily on his four-seam fastball in Game One. He went back to that pitch in Game Five, and it worked brilliantly. He maintained his ability to rear back and throw hard as the innings ticked by. That resulted in more than a few big whiffs and terrific, impossible to hit pitches painted on the black.
These are the kind of games the Yankees envisioned Tanaka pitching when they signed him back in 2014. They paid top-dollar for the ace right-hander, thinking he would lead them to postseason glory. He may have stumbled along the way, but once in the playoffs, Tanaka took complete charge. The $155 million man is earning his payday against the Indians and the Astros. He’s doing it in dominant fashion, too, completely overpowering the American League’s best lineups.
"To be honest with you, I really couldn't imagine anything like this when I was in Japan," Tanaka told MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch and Brian McTaggart. "It's been great. I'm really, really happy to be able to pitch in a game like this, and do what I did tonight."
As the Yankees travel to Houston, they stand one game removed from the World Series. Of course a lot could happen between now and then; a number of variables exist. One thing’s for sure though, the Bombers have succeeded thus far in part because of their rotation. Among the brilliant starers, Tanaka’s performance has led the way. His success has erased the sluggish regular season numbers, leaving in its wake playoff glory.