Yankees’ hitters will have their own problems tonight dealing with Astros lefty and AL Cy Young Award favorite Dallas Keuchel. There’s no telling if anyone other than Carlos Beltran (4-for-9 with a home run against him) can hit the guy.
But win or lose, one thing must happen in the AL wild-card game: Masahiro Tanaka must pitch like the $155 million man he became last January.
There’s no room for error here. The right-hander from Japan cannot surrender a three-run home run in the first inning and then lock down thereafter. He can’t turn it over to the bullpen in the sixth inning.
No, Tanaka must be a stud. The Yankees don’t need Astros sluggers Carlos Correa, George Springer or Evan Gattis launching missiles over the wall at Yankee Stadium. What they need are seven strong, efficient innings before turning it over to Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.
A glance at Tanaka’s numbers indicates a moderately successful 2015 season. His ERA (3.51) isn’t too bad. His strikeout rate (8.1 per nine innings) is solid.
But anyone who has watched Tanaka this year knows something hasn’t been right with the Yankees’ ace since elbow issues cropped up a year ago. The long ball has been a major concern — 25 home runs served up in 154 innings. He’s allowed four runs in three of his past seven starts. He spent more than a month on the disabled list in the spring, which contributed to making just 24 starts this season.
Tanaka’s lone career start against the Astros, on June 27 in Houston, was among his worst in pinstripes. He needed 98 pitches to get through five innings. Along the way, he gave up seven hits — three homers, two in the fifth — two walks and six earned runs.
But all of those worrisome numbers and the troubling outing against the Astros happened in the regular season. This is postseason baseball. This is the only baseball that truly matters to Yankee fans.
Tanaka will get a fresh start when he gets his first taste of October baseball. What he does when he toes the mound will shape his perception for years to come, for better or worse.
amNY’s sports editor,
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.