The introductory gala was held on a Tuesday morning in February 2014, the touted right-hander proudly displaying a jersey with No. 19 stitched upon the back. The Majors’ newest star announced in practiced English: “Hello, my name is Masahiro Tanaka. I am very happy to be a Yankee.”
As Tanaka explained that day, he loved the team’s winning pedigree, embracing the pressure that playing in New York would provide. In sentiments that would be echoed by Gerrit Cole years later, Tanaka said that he expected to help the organization win its 28th World Series title.
To date, that mission has been unfulfilled, and the Yankees’ 8-4 loss to the Rays in Wednesday’s Game 3 of the American League Division Series calls Tanaka’s future into question. His seven-year, $155 million deal nearing expiration, Tanaka, now 31 years old, is not ready to wonder if his final pitch in pinstripes was a spinning slider that Randy Arozarena hit out of Petco Park.
“No, not at all,” Tanaka said through a translator. “And it still doesn’t cross my mind, even now.”
Yet Tanaka has voiced thoughts along those lines in recent weeks, including after a Sept. 23 start against the Blue Jays in Buffalo, N.Y., acknowledging that it might have been his final regular-season start as a Yankee.
Tanaka’s calling card throughout his time in New York has been as a stellar big-game performer -- entering this postseason, Tanaka’s .157 batting average allowed had been the lowest among any starting pitcher with a minimum of 40 innings -- though that has not played out this year. Entering this October, he also had a 5-3 record with a stellar 1.76 ERA in eight October starts for the Yankees.
Horrid weather played a part in a rough Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series, when Tanaka permitted six runs over four-plus innings to the Indians, and the expectation was that he would perform far better under San Diego’s postcard-perfect conditions.
“I always expect that when Masa takes the ball, that he’s going to go out and pitch really well and give us a great opportunity to win,” manager Aaron Boone said. “They dinged him with a couple of big swings today.”
Aaron Judge saved a run in the first inning with an eye-popping catch, stealing an extra-base hit from Ji-Man Choi. Tanaka permitted three second-inning singles, including a run-scoring Michael Perez hit, part of a three-RBI night for the light-hitting catcher.
“Masa has always been a rock in our starting rotation,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “The commitment to professionalism from him is through the roof. It was kind of an off night tonight, but I think going forward, he’s going to make sure he’s at his best -- no matter what.”
A close call in the fourth inning shifted the tides. With Joey Wendle running on the pitch, Tanaka tried a full-count slider to Willy Adames. Higashioka fired a strike to second base, but home-plate umpire Mark Carlson ruled ball four, nixing what could have been a strikeout, throwout double play.
“It was a borderline pitch, so it probably could have gone both ways, but I did think it was a strike,” Tanaka said. “At the end of the day, you have to go with what the umpire says.”
Kevin Kiermaier slugged Tanaka’s next pitch over the right-field wall for a three-run homer, and the sizzling Arozarena ambushed Tanaka’s first pitch of the fifth inning, prompting a move to the bullpen with the Yanks trailing by four runs at the time.
“I’m very frustrated that I wasn’t able to get the results tonight,” Tanaka said.