FORT MYERS, Fla. - When the goal for spring training is survival, as it was for Masahiro Tanaka the past six weeks, then pitching on Opening Day should be considered a victory. But after Tuesday's shaky outing, Tanaka's final tuneup, the Yankees can't feel as confident about their supposed ace as they did a year ago.
Tanaka, who faced a depleted Twins lineup that had former Yankee Eduardo Nuñez batting fifth, allowed seven hits and three runs with only one strikeout in 41/3 innings. Eduardo Escobar smacked a long home run to lead off the fifth and Tanaka finally was pulled after getting Chris Herrmann to fly out to centerfield.
The priority this spring training was to protect Tanaka, who was diagnosed with a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament last July, and the Yankees were able to do that by bringing him along slowly. Just how significant an accomplishment was that?
"It's better than the alternative," manager Joe Girardi said.
Tanaka pitched only 142/3 innings, compared with 21 in last year's camp, and finished with a 3.07 ERA. He struck out 13 and walked one. Last year, Tanaka had a 2.14 ERA, striking out 26 with three walks.
As for his much scrutinized velocity, Tanaka's fastball Tuesday was in the 87-91 mph range, according to the stadium radar gun. He touched 92 once and 10 of his 76 pitches were 90 or above. Last season, Tanaka's fastball averaged 91.1 mph, according to PitchFX, and ranged from 86.9 to 95.6.
After his last start, Tanaka explained that the dip in velocity was because of more work with his two-seam fastball, or sinker, which relies more on movement than the faster speed of the four-seamer. Tanaka said he threw more four-seamers than in his previous starts, but the gun didn't indicate much of a jump.
"Obviously, it wasn't the best pitching out there on the mound," Tanaka said through his interpreter. "But I felt that I was able to work on what I wanted to work on this spring and I feel pretty much ready to go for the season."
Not like there's much of a choice. Girardi said part of the reason Tanaka was picked for Monday's opener was the extra rest it would afford him, just as he had between his four Grapefruit League starts. The plan is for Tanaka to be on a 90-pitch limit for Opening Day and Girardi does not expect him to be compromised in any way -- with one disclaimer.
"We're not going to know though," Girardi said.
Predicting what Tanaka will do once the regular season begins is difficult. He completed the Yankees' spring-training regimen without reporting any physical issues, so that's a big plus. But there are plenty of questions, mostly centering around his velocity and how much Tanaka can still rely on his split-finger fastball, which puts tremendous strain on the elbow. Austin Romine, who was behind the plate Tuesday, thought the splitter was not in top form.
"We had some swings and misses on it," Romine said, "but it probably wasn't where he wanted it to be."
Tanaka kept the Twins off-balance by changing speeds, but they also had a handful of hard-hit balls other than Escobar's homer. And Tanaka didn't say he was holding anything back, or "saving bullets" for the regular season. It just that his final start of spring training also turned out to be his worst. At least he is healthy.
"I think I am a bit relieved," Tanaka said. "As far as going into the season, I'm pretty confident of where I am, how strong I am. I feel good."
Last season, Tanaka was on a potential Cy Young track, at 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA before being diagnosed with the UCL tear in July. Just like that, his rookie season was ruined, clouding the immediate future of the Yankees' $175-million investment. Tanaka will be there Opening Day, but the anxiety is not going away.
"You never know about pitchers today," Girardi said. "But he got through all the hurdles."