On May 20 at Wrigley Field, Masahiro Tanaka finally lost a game. It came in his ninth start for the Yankees, and nobody was more surprised to see Tanaka lose to the Cubs than Tanaka.
This wasn't because it was a last-place Cubs team that beat him; it could have been the A's, Tigers or anyone else and Tanaka would have been just as surprised. After all, this was his first regular-season loss in a little more than a season and a half, during which he'd gone 35-0.
To call Tanaka confident is to call the sky blue or grass green. His amazing track record, and his commanding presence, is why the Yankees went to $155 million to sign him to a seven-year contract. It was hardly surprising that he handled the transition from the Rakuten Golden Eagles to Major League Baseball so smoothly.
Was it also too good to stay true?
That's the unsettling reality that the Yankees were dealing with on Wednesday in Cleveland, after sending Tanaka back to New York to have an MRI on his elbow. He has looked almost ordinary in his last four starts, going 1-3 with 4.25 ERA, and told his bosses that his elbow didn't feel right on Tuesday, when the Indians collected 10 hits off him in 6 2/3 innings.
Tanaka was placed on the disabled list before the results of the MRI were available, assuring that he'll miss his scheduled start on Sunday and not be available until the sixth game after the All-Star break. The Yankees can live with that. But anything worse counts as the worst-case scenario as Joe Girardi and Co. try to get Derek Jeter back onto the October stage one more time.
Tanaka and the bullpen have kept the Yankees viable in the winnable American League East -- an impressive feat given that Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were all on the disabled list before Memorial Day. Brandon McCarthy, acquired from Arizona earlier in the week, becomes the ninth pitcher to start for Girardi this season.
General manager Brian Cashman has said that he will continue working to improve the roster before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, but the loss of Tanaka would be a terribly difficult blow to overcome.
Consider this: The Yankees went into their game on Wednesday 13-5 in Tanaka's starts and 32-39 behind everyone else. That's a .451 winning percentage in the non-Tanaka starts, which would leave the Yankees 78-84 if they did not get Tanaka back and couldn't raise their level behind the other starters.
The good news here is we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Yankees could still get good news on Tanaka.
But given how hard he pushed himself in Japan -- coming back one day after a 160-pitch loss in the Japan Series to save the decisive game of the series -- and that he relies on a wicked splitter, it's easy to see why alarm bells would ring so loudly when he told the team that he experienced discomfort in his elbow Tuesday night at Progressive Field.
Like his Asian peers, Tanaka was used to working in a six-man rotation while with the Golden Eagles. He seemed to thrive with less rest with the Yankees, but at some point the expectations probably became unrealistic. Tanaka was winning, and the Yankees needed him to keep winning.
His record had gotten to 11-1 before the Orioles beat him on June 22 at Yankee Stadium. Jon Lester then outpitched him on June 28 at his home park, but Tanaka went the distance in the 2-1 loss, throwing 116 pitches. He gave up four runs in a win at Minnesota last Thursday and gave it everything he had Tuesday. The Indians made him look like another guy, not one of the game's great pitchers.
This happens all the time in baseball, of course. But pitchers like Tanaka don't come along that often, so until he's back on the mound looking like the guy who started 11-1, the Yankees will hold their breath.
Here's hoping this will be remembered as a scare, not something a whole lot worse.