Masahiro Tanaka will assume the responsibility of serving as the Yankees’ Opening Day starter for the fourth time, accepting the ball for the club’s March 28 contest against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone made the announcement on Saturday in Sarasota, Fla., saying that left-handers James Paxton and J.A. Happ will follow Tanaka in the rotation. Tanaka will be making the start in place of right-hander Luis Severino, who will begin the year on the injured list due to an inflamed right rotator cuff.
“It’s a little bit different from the previous three Opening Days, just because Sevy got hurt this time,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “However, it’s a special day. To be able to pitch the first game of baseball, it’s an honor. I’d like to go out there and give my best performance to give a good boost for the team to start out on a good note.”
This is Tanaka's fourth career Opening Day assignment. He accepted those honors in 2015, '16 and '17; the Yankees lost all three of those games to the Blue Jays, Astros and Rays, with Tanaka twice taking losses.
"Masa is the guy we're comfortable with in those situations," Boone said. "Opening Day, to me, is always more of a celebration. Ultimately, though, it's only one game."
The 30-year-old Tanaka was 12-6 with a 3.75 ERA and one complete game in 27 starts for New York last season, ranking seventh among American League pitchers with a 4.54 K/BB ratio and ninth with a 2.02 BB/9.0 IP ratio. Tanaka said he has been honing a knuckle-curve this spring, which he plans on using to replace his old curveball. He believes that his past postseason battles should help keep his emotions in check.
“I think it comes down to experience to be able to perform on Opening Day,” Tanaka said. “Through the years, I have had the opportunity to experience playoff games, pitching at big games. I have that experience under my belt. Going in to this Opening Day, I think that experience will help me perform better.”
Paxton, 30, will be making his Yankees debut when he takes the ball for the first time. He was acquired from the Mariners in November, having gone 11-6 with a 3.76 ERA in 28 starts for Seattle, including a no-hitter in Toronto on May 8, 2018.
"As a staff, we just need to come together, bring our best and just give the team a chance to win every time we go out there," Paxton said. "We've got some good depth. We've got some good young guys that I think will step in and fill that hole for us until Sevy gets healthy. Hopefully it's not too long that he's out."
Left, right, left
Boone said he isn't going to be overly concerned with organizing the pitching staff to split the right-handers with left-handers. That is already evident with him scheduling Paxton and Happ in back-to-back games at the start of the season.
"Some of it is that they have different looks," Boone said. "Also, our rotation has three lefties in it anyway, so as the season unfolds obviously things get jumbled. So I wasn't married to the idea of splitting things up."
So young, so versatile
Gleyber Torres continues to split time this spring between second base and shortstop. Slated to be the starting second baseman, he started at shortstop on Saturday night against the Orioles.
Were Didi Gregorius not recovering from Tommy John surgery, the 22-year-old would be more anchored at second base this Grapefruit League season. But because he came up through the Minor Leagues as a shortstop, Torres is a natural choice during the season to back up at that position, where he played in 21 games last year.
The Yankees particularly want to get him extra work this spring because shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, 34, has a history of injury issues and hasn't played in the Major Leagues since midway through the 2017 season.
Boone said that Torres' ability to toggle between second base and shortstop "is huge for us." It not only provides insurance and depth at shortstop, but it also allows the Yankees to occasionally rest Tulowitzki.
When Torres does play shortstop during the regular season, Boone said second base will likely go to DJ LeMahieu, who signed in the offseason as a free agent.
The Yankees are scheduled for a split-squad day on Sunday. In a 1:05 p.m. ET home game in Tampa, Happ will get the start against the Pirates' Chris Archer. At the same time in Lakeland, Nestor Cortes will get the start against the Tigers' Matt Moore.