NEW YORK -- As the tentacles of his organization rifle through every other big league roster in hopes of stabilizing the rotation, Masahiro Tanaka offered a convincing reminder of why the Yankees should be able to trust him in a big-game situation.
Tanaka continued his season-long mastery of the Rays as the top teams in the American League East began their three-game showdown, spinning a two-hit shutout and striking out 10 in the Yankees’ 3-0 victory on Monday evening at Yankee Stadium.
“It makes it even better to be able to go nine innings facing the Rays, who are up there [in the standings] with us," Tanaka said through a translator. "Definitely, it's really nice to get a 'W' tonight.”
The Yanks had the bullpen on alert as early as the seventh inning, but Tanaka continued to cruise in an economical effort, with manager Aaron Boone saying that this was the best that the right-hander’s fastball, slider and splitter had meshed.
Tanaka’s 111th pitch produced a Tommy Pham roller to third baseman DJ LeMahieu, who whipped a throw across the infield into Luke Voit's glove, sealing the Yankees' first two-hitter with 10 or more strikeouts since Mike Mussina did it on Sept. 24, 2002, also against Tampa Bay.
"For Masa to come out here and kick off this homestand against a really good team over there, it was huge," Boone said. "You need performances like that sprinkled throughout the year to preserve guys. It becomes a big reset day when you can have that kind of performance."
The victory, the Yanks' third straight, increased their lead over the Rays in the division to 1 1/2 games, just a few hours after general manager Brian Cashman acknowledged that he has been contacting rival executives in hopes of stabilizing the rotation.
"You always worry about the pitching, and we’ll continue to try to reinforce it to the best of our abilities," Cashman said. "Obviously, when we entered the season, our two strengths were our bullpen and our offense, and that’s still the case. It’s our job to reinforce that rotation."
Even with newcomer Edwin Encarnacion taking an 0-for-4 collar, the Yankees have homered in 20 consecutive games. That equals the longest streak in the Majors this season (Mariners) and ranks second in franchise history only to the 1941 World Series-winning squad (25).
LeMahieu slugged a two-run homer in the third inning and Cameron Maybin added a solo blast in the fifth to account for the Yanks' production off Rays starter Yonny Chirinos, who took the loss after scattering five hits over six innings.
"The guy is an awesome player," Voit said of Maybin, who has homered in three straight games but could face a roster crunch with Aaron Judge due back this homestand. "You can tell he’s played in the big leagues a long time. He knows how to control his emotions, and hopefully we’ll find a way to keep him on the roster."
The dual blasts provided enough cushion, since no Rays reached second base during Tanaka's effort.
“He got a lot of us swinging at those sliders that came down on our back foot, but all his pitches were really good tonight," said Tampa Bay's Austin Meadows. “The whole game, he didn’t leave anything down the middle, really."
Crediting his aggressiveness in the strike zone, Tanaka has limited the Rays to one run over 22 innings (0.41 ERA) through three efforts this season. He was assisted by some dazzling defense, most notably LeMahieu's diving stop and flip to record an inning-ending fielder's choice in the fifth.
"Whenever we needed to make a play, all the guys were ready to make plays for him," Voit said. "He's a ground-ball pitcher, so all of our infielders needed to be quick. We had the right shifts on to get effective outs."
Ever the perfectionist, Tanaka said that he may have been lucky on a few pitches, especially early. If that's true, the Yankees will gladly accept that kind of good fortune every fifth day.
"After the fourth inning, everything clicked," catcher Gary Sanchez said. "We made the necessary adjustments. The splitter was better, the slider was good and he commanded the fastball, commanding and attacking the zone. What else can you ask for from Tanaka tonight? It makes your job easy."