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'Masa' cruises after limiting damage in 1st

Tanaka strikes out 10 over 7 innings of 1-run ball vs. Mariners
Special to MLB.com

NEW YORK -- Before all the Mariners errors and all the Yankees runs, Masahiro Tanaka (aka "Masa" for Players Weekend) stood on the mound in the first inning of Sunday's 10-1 win looking at a problem.

Seattle already had the game's first run. Tanaka's split-finger fastball, so key to his success, wasn't looking sharp. He had just left one in the middle of the plate for Nelson Cruz, aka "Boomstick" to smack for a double that drove home the run and left the Mariners with runners at second and third with one out.
 

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NEW YORK -- Before all the Mariners errors and all the Yankees runs, Masahiro Tanaka (aka "Masa" for Players Weekend) stood on the mound in the first inning of Sunday's 10-1 win looking at a problem.

Seattle already had the game's first run. Tanaka's split-finger fastball, so key to his success, wasn't looking sharp. He had just left one in the middle of the plate for Nelson Cruz, aka "Boomstick" to smack for a double that drove home the run and left the Mariners with runners at second and third with one out.
 

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Video: SEA@NYY: Cruz opens the scoring with an RBI double

The game was just underway, but in some ways it was about to be decided. Remember, when Tanaka struggled early this season, the first inning was often his undoing. Even now, his first-inning ERA is 7.56.

So this first inning could have been another bad one for Tanaka and the Yankees. It wasn't.

Tanaka struck out Kyle Seager, aka "Corey's Brother," on a 95.8-mph fastball. He got Mitch Haniger to fly out on a slider. The Mariners never scored again.

The Yankees went on to win in a game that was never again close. Tanaka won a second straight start since coming off the disabled list, and he is able to look forward to big things with the final month of the season coming up.

"I feel strong," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "Today, I felt even better than the last outing."

Tanaka's ERA for the season stands at 4.69, easily his worst in four seasons in the Major Leagues. But limit it to just the past 11 starts, and Tanaka owns a 2.92 ERA, better than the 3.12 career mark he had coming into 2017.

Perhaps when Tanaka was struggling early this year, a first inning like the one Sunday would have grown into something much worse. Remember Opening Day, when he gave up three first-inning runs to the Rays. Or May 14, when he was down, 6-0, to the Astros before the Yankees even came to the plate.

This is a different Tanaka, and this first inning ended up nothing like those. He set out to strike out Seager, and he did it.

"That's the best-case scenario," Tanaka said.

From there, things got better for him.

"I think it could have been worse, the first inning," Tanaka said. "I was fortunately able to limit the damage. I think that led to the quicker outs from the second inning on."

After the first, Tanaka allowed just three more hits, and two of those didn't leave the infield. He ended up with seven innings and 10 strikeouts, his fourth double-digit strikeout game of the season.

"It took him a couple of hitters to get his stuff going," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Three of the first four balls were hit hard. You look after that, there were not a lot of balls hit hard."

Because the Yanks got Tanaka plenty of runs, he was able to erase one of the remaining negatives on his record. Before Sunday, Tanaka was 0-6 with an 11.81 ERA in seven daytime starts this season.

Most of those bad starts came earlier in the season, when Tanaka wasn't pitching well. More recently, he started a day game against the Tigers in which he allowed just one earned run in six innings, but the Yankees were shut out.

"I never put any emphasis on day game vs. night game," Tanaka said.

There's no need to put any emphasis on it now. There's no need to think of Tanaka as the ace who couldn't be counted on. Tanaka is a better pitcher now. The first inning Sunday showed it.

Danny Knobler is a contributor to MLB.com based in New York.

New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka