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Tanaka has made transition seem effortless

Japanese right-hander impresses Yanks with his performance in first Spring Training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka was deep into his sharpest outing of the spring, racking up a 10-strikeout performance against the Marlins on Friday, and yet his demeanor nodded to the relaxing pitch of a recent beer advertising campaign.

Parked on a folding chair in the middle of the Yankees' clubhouse, Tanaka rested between innings, a towel laid out beneath his feet. A cooler of cold drinks was within reach, and one observer joked that -- here in the middle of a George M. Steinbrenner Field carpet -- Tanaka might have found his beach.

"Everybody was doing it that way, so I was kind of manipulating it and doing it as well," Tanaka said through an interpreter.

It has been a whirlwind two months of adjustment for Tanaka, jetting to the United States after signing a seven-year, $155 million contract, then compiling a 2.14 ERA in five Spring Training appearances for his new team. What pleases the Yankees most is how effortless the transition appears to have been.

Tanaka's split-fingered fastball -- rated as world-class by scouts who attended his starts in Japan -- has lived up to expectations, and his fastball and slider have proven to be serviceable weapons. The gauntlet ahead will present new challenges, but the Yanks are optimistic that Tanaka will continue to succeed.

"He's just made it seem like it's almost more of an issue for us," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "It's different for him -- 162 games in 183 days and a five-man rotation and all that, but those are adjustments he'll have to deal with. We've been surprised with how he's hit the ground running and made this much lesser of an issue than we expected."

In five Spring Training outings, Tanaka gave up five runs and struck out 26 over 21 innings, walking just three. His control is a particular point of pride; asked about his favorite part of Friday's outing against Miami, Tanaka replied in perfect English: "No walks."

The Yankees will look for that to continue in their fourth game of the season, giving Tanaka the ball on Friday against the Blue Jays in Toronto. By slotting him fourth in the rotation, Tanaka will pick up an extra day of rest with the Yanks' April 14 off-day; an accommodation given how Tanaka is learning to pitch in a five-man rotation instead of once a week in Japan.

After a spring that started with questions about how he would adjust to not only shorter rest, but different big league baseballs, clay mounds, tighter strike zones and more powerful lineups, Tanaka seems to have dashed those concerns handily.

"He came in with an open mind about the plan we had here and how we do things, and he got on it right away," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "And he wanted to get on it right away. I think he's more prepared to do it right away than if he was to stick on more of his old schedule. I think he's much more prepared."

As Tanaka put it: "I just feel that I was able to get a feel for everything, for how everything is run here in the Majors."

Hiroki Kuroda believes that Tanaka may be a few steps ahead of where Kuroda was when the right-hander made his own jump to the Majors with the Dodgers in 2008. Kuroda said that he left that spring unsure if he could win against Major League lineups; Tanaka has not seemed to have that issue.

"From what I see from these exhibition games, I don't think he has any problems," Kuroda said through an interpreter. "He has the stuff to pitch through a full season."

They worked out together this spring, including playing long toss together, but Kuroda said that Tanaka has not come to him seeking much advice. It is possible that he has not needed to, Kuroda said.

"You could say that he hasn't gone through a wall yet, so maybe he has nothing to ask right now," Kuroda said.

But Tanaka is watching and learning. He said that in his brief tour around the Grapefruit League, he studied the difference in the body types of hitters. Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last year, said that "batters are bigger here, stronger here and they can reach out further."

That will continue this week in Houston. Tanaka traveled with the Yankees to their first road stop and is looking forward to watching the first couple of games at Minute Maid Park, saying that he feels it will "be a plus" to get a feel for what Major League games are like from the dugout.

Tanaka said that he plans to study the Blue Jays' lineup "thoroughly," but he seems to be taking a measured approach toward his first start. Tanaka said that he has not allowed himself to get excited about that one outing, knowing there will be much more to experience ahead.

"I feel that I can't overthink too much," Tanaka said. "What I don't know is what I don't know. So basically I just have to go out there and keep learning and go about my business."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.
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