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The Yankees hope Masahiro Tanaka turned a corner

The Yankees ace has pitched better of late. Is this success sustainable?

MLB: New York Yankees at Chicago White Sox David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees badly need Masahiro Tanaka. With CC Sabathia on the disabled list and the bullpen in shambles, Joe Girardi would love nothing more than the return of the 2016 version of Tanaka. You know, the pitcher who anchored the staff and went deep into games on a weekly basis.

After two consecutive promising starts, should Girardi and the Yankees expect the Tanaka of old to make his triumphant return? There’s a case to be made that Tanaka is indeed back. Before I do, it is important to note that he had two consecutive solid outings at the end of April. After his stellar performance against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, many of us were asking ourselves the same question we are right now: Is Tanaka back?

In that case, he was definitely not. Rather, it was just a tease of what he could be. Tanaka wound up stumbling through an awful May, and June didn’t seem to bring any sense of promise either. Now, after a brilliant start against Texas and Yu Darvish, plus another solid outing against the White Sox, let’s revisit the riddle of Tanaka.

The long ball has killed the right-hander all season long. He has given up three home runs in a game twice already this month. That’s what happens when a groundball pitcher can’t locate at or below the knees. In his last two starts, Tanaka has gotten back to pounding the lower part of the zone, and he hasn’t given up a dinger. His newfound sense of command is incredibly encouraging. Look at him work the lower half in these strikeouts against Texas:

When he’s not ringing up strikeouts, he’s getting those grounders that made him such a successful pitcher since his arrival in 2014. His groundball percentage on Wednesday night was 72.2%, which increased from an already impressive 62.5% in his start against the Rangers. These are his highest percentages since, not surprisingly, his two-start stretch in April.

So, does this mean we will be treated to the All-Star version of Tanaka again? Obviously, it’s way too early to tell, but there are positives to take from his last few starts. Before these last two solid outings, Tanaka was bombed for five runs in four innings while allowing three home runs. He also struck out 10 batters in that short start, which averages out to 22.50 K/9. You could make the argument that despite the final result, Tanaka was starting to find his way on that tough day in Oakland.

Going back another start before the Oakland massacre, Tanaka pitched 6.2 innings and allowed one earned run while striking out nine. The defense didn’t exactly help his cause that night against the Angels, but errors aside, you could argue that three of Tanaka’s last four starts have been a reason for optimism.

Of course, expectations need to be managed. Tanaka has struggled way too much this season for a pair of starts to be declared as the launching pad to domination. Underneath the mud of his early June struggles, however, were signs of hope. His last two starts show some solid evidence of a turnaround taking shape. Can he maintain this success and help the Yankees down the stretch?

With Michael Pineda struggling and Sabathia still a ways away from returning, Tanaka’s importance to the rotation is monumental. A revitalized Tanaka would be a huge break for a Yankees team that has experienced enough bad breaks in the past three weeks to fill an entire season.