A week from Monday, Derek Jeter will be retired and the focus will shift entirely to the 2015 Yankees and their chances of a rebound season. To that end, things could not have gone much better Sunday.
Masahiro Tanaka looked like his pre-injury self in his 51/3 innings as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays, 5-2, at the Stadium.
"I was able to go pretty strong today, so yeah, I'm relieved," Tanaka said through his translator.
No doubt, so are the Yankees (80-75), who took three of four from the Blue Jays to keep their infinitesimal playoff hopes alive.
The sellout crowd of 48,144 reserved most of its noise for Jeter, who went 2-for-4, including an RBI double; Brian McCann, who had two home runs and three RBIs, and Brett Gardner, whose solo shot in the fifth was the franchise's 15,000th homer.
The Yankees had eight hits, two apiece from Gardner, Jeter, McCann and Ichiro Suzuki. But in terms of significance, at least in terms of next season, nothing compared with the performance of Tanaka, who made his first start since being diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow shortly after his July 8 start in Cleveland.
Showing little rust, he allowed one run and five hits, another step in the direction of not needing Tommy John surgery that would cost him all of next year. "He looked the same," McCann said. "The difference between what he did today and early on [pre-injury] was nothing."
Tanaka walked none, hit a batter and struck out four. On a pitch count of 70 to 75 (he threw 70, including 48 strikes), he had only one three-ball count. "Pretty darn good," Joe Girardi said. "It's extremely encouraging. And now we'll try to get him ready to start again Saturday."
Said Gardner: "Looked like he really didn't skip a beat."
Three of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country evaluated Tanaka in July and determined that the tear was not severe enough to require immediate Tommy John surgery. They instead prescribed rest and rehab with the hope that Tanaka, now 13-4 with a 2.47 ERA, could avoid the surgery.
So far, so good, though pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it will be a while before the Yankees can feel completely out of the woods.
"Are we going to know fully until five years down the road? Probably not," he said. "There's a lot of pitchers in baseball that have probably similar things that are asymptomatic, so it's possible that he can get through this for quite a while. It's possible it comes up and bites him and that's it. But we're hopeful it's the earlier scenario and that he's going to be fine and have a nice, long career with no problems."
With runners at first and second and one out in the sixth, Girardi replaced Tanaka with Adam Warren, who struck out Dioner Navarro and Dan Johnson. Warren struck out one in a perfect seventh before the offense provided breathing room in the bottom of the inning.
Jeter's RBI double made it 3-1 and McCann followed with a two-run blast. He has 22 homers, 18 at the Stadium.
Dellin Betances allowed a two-out RBI single by Edwin Encarnacion in the eighth before David Robertson earned his 38th save in 42 chances.
As for Tanaka, he said his elbow remains pain-free. "I don't exactly remember when," he said, "but gradually as the game went on, I guess I stopped thinking about it."