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Tanaka frontrunner to be Opening Day starter

@BryanHoch
March 8, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the wake of Luis Severino's right shoulder injury, the Yankees appear to have decided on their new Opening Day starter. Masahiro Tanaka seems to be the likely choice, though manager Aaron Boone said he is keeping that call close to the vest for now. "We've started

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the wake of Luis Severino's right shoulder injury, the Yankees appear to have decided on their new Opening Day starter. Masahiro Tanaka seems to be the likely choice, though manager Aaron Boone said he is keeping that call close to the vest for now.

"We've started informing guys," Boone said prior to Friday night's 6-5 loss to the Tigers in Grapefruit League action at George M. Steinbrenner Field. "You can probably make some good guesses."

Boone was pleased with Tanaka's performance under the lights on Friday, when the right-hander limited Detroit to two runs and four hits over 3 1/3 innings. Tanaka permitted a third-inning solo home run to Daz Cameron, but he also struck out five against a walk, while throwing 34 of 53 pitches for strikes.

If it is Tanaka, it would mark the fourth Opening Day assignment of the right-hander's tenure in pinstripes. Tanaka 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.

"If you're given the opportunity to pitch on that day, you want to go out and do your best," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "If you look back, I don't think I've necessarily been good on Opening Days, but I've gotten some experience under my belt. If that situation were to arise, hopefully I could go out and give a good performance."

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 that he has been honing a knuckle-curve this spring, which he plans on using to replace his old curveball.

"The previous curveball, I wasn't able to control it the way I wanted to," Tanaka said. "I was just trying to look for something that is more controllable. So far, I feel like it has been working."

With Severino and CC Sabathia expected to begin the season on the injured list -- Severino had a cortisone injection on Thursday, and he will not resume throwing for two weeks -- Boone's other choices to begin the regular-season slate are left-handers in J.A. Happ and James Paxton.

The 36-year-old Happ was 17-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 31 starts between the Blue Jays and Yankees last season, including a 7-0 record with a 2.69 ERA after joining the Bombers in a late July trade. Happ said that losing Severino was "a bummer," but a reality of the game.

"I think you try to pick up the slack," Happ said. "Good teams are able to do that. But that's certainly a blow, because that's a guy that you pencil in to really be effective for us. Hopefully it's not serious and it's just a matter of a couple of weeks. That would be best-case, I think."

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."

Boone said that he would feel good entrusting the duties to any of those three hurlers, but he hinted that Tanaka may be especially equipped for the assignment.

"Masa has clearly shown throughout his life, really, that he's really good in the big spot," Boone said. "Certainly, an Opening Day situation, he wouldn't flinch at. He'd be prepared."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.