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Yankees 3, Blue Jays 2: Masahiro Tanaka shaky, but bullpen holds on in series opener

The Yankees overcame an uneven start from Masahiro Tanaka to take the first game over their division rivals.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees opened up their 2016 AL East slate with a narrow 3-2 victory over the Blue Jays. Masahiro Tanaka struggled with control during a short outing, and opposing flamethower Aaron Sanchez dazzled at times, but some timely late-game hits keyed New York to victory.

Tanaka ran into trouble in the first. He reached a full count against Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but allowed two-out walks to each of them. Troy Tulowitzki also worked the count full, but Tanaka struck him out with a slider to end the threat.

Sanchez appeared erratic in the second inning. He issued walks to both Brian McCann and Chase Headley, and allowed the runners to move up with an errant pickoff throw into center field. An RBI groundout from Starlin Castro gave the Yankees the early advantage, 1-0.

The pitch count quickly became an issue for Tanaka. He required 29 pitches to navigate the first inning, and 25 pitches to retire the Jays in the second, despite not allowing a hit in either frame. He managed only five innings, continuing the early trend of Yankee starters failing to pitch deep into the game, though he was more economic in his last couple frames. The bullpen was fresh on two days of rest, but the relief unit will soon become taxed if Tanaka and co. continue to run up high early pitch counts.

Things went south for Tanaka in the third. He hit Kevin Pillar with a pitch to leadoff the inning, and Josh Donaldson followed with a single. Bautista brought them both home with a booming double to center. Jacoby Ellsbury's first step was in the wrong direction, and his adjustment delay allowed Bautista's liner to fall slightly out of his reach.

After striking out Encarnacion, Tanaka appeared close to letting the game slip away, as he walked Tulowitzkzi. However, Chris Colabello grounded into a crucial double play to end the inning. Tanaka managed to wade his way through the treacherous Toronto lineup from there, allowing just three hits and a pair of runs in his five innings of work. He struck out six and walked four.

Sanchez shook off his early troubles and looked dominant through the middle innings. After allowing the run in the second, Sanchez proceeded to retire 12 of the next 14 Yankees. His only missteps were a fourth inning walk to McCann and a double by Didi Gregorius in the fifth. Otherwise, the Yankees appeared flummoxed by his impressive repertoire, as Sanchez mixed 96 mph two-seamers and four-seamers with knee-buckling, 80 mph curveballs.

McCann ended the scoreless stretch with a solo home run in the sixth inning, tying the score at 2-2. Sanchez retired Beltran to end the sixth and finish his outing. He allowed two runs on just three hits in six innings, recording five strikeouts compared to three walks.

The Yankees managed to regain the lead in the seventh. Brett Cecil relieved Sanchez and immediately found himself in a jam, allowing a single to Chase Headley and a walk to Castro. Gregorius dropped down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over, and Ellsbury lined a soft single to left to bring home Headley with the go-ahead run.

New York failed to add to the 3-2 lead. Ellsbury stole second to put two runners in scoring position, but Gardner struck out swinging, and Alex Rodriguez was retired on a hard groundout to second. Rodriguez ran into bad luck throughout the game, as his groundout in the seventh left the bat at 112 mph, and his line drives in the first and sixth were both struck right at Bautista in right field.

Johnny Barbato took over for Tanaka and worked an uneventful sixth inning. Chasen Shreve entered for the seventh, and issued a walk to Donaldson after retiring the first two batters. Joe Girardi acted decisively, bringing in Dellin Betances with to face Bautista, who was the go-ahead run. Donaldson increased the pressure by stealing second, but Betances struck Bautista out looking with a devastating knuckle curve.

The Yankees had another chance to open up the game in the eighth. Singles by McCann and Headley put runners on the corners, but Castro struck out to end the inning. Still, the bullpen made the slim margin stand. Betances retired the side in order in the eighth inning, and Andrew Miller worked the ninth for his second save of the season. The Yankees surely would like their starters to work deeper into games, but the New York bullpen has performed quite admirably under some duress thus far this season, and continued to do so tonight.

It was a satisfying win for New York, one which resembled some of the close games between these two teams in 2015. The series continues tomorrow night, as Michael Pineda will square off with J.A. Happ. It's never too early to start piling up wins against AL East opponents, so here's hoping the Yankees can add another such victory tomorrow.