NEW YORK -- When you’re mentioned in the same breath as Sandy Koufax, you must be doing something right.
With his outing, Tanaka joined Koufax as the only pitchers in history to allow two runs or fewer in each of his first six career postseason starts. Unlike the Hall of Fame left-hander, Tanaka has held his opponents to four hits or fewer in each of his starts, thrusting him into an October class of his own.
He’s become the Yankees’ very own Masa-hero.
“I feel good about all of our guys,” said Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee. “But when the game is on the line and you need five or six innings of zero or one run, you can count on him.”
Tanaka had allowed a home run in each of his final four starts this season, while the 28 homers he gave up this year marked the second-highest total of his six-year career. Considering Minnesota set a Major League record with 307 home runs this season, the task of taming that powerful lineup was daunting, to say the least.
Tanaka responded as he always seems to do when the lights are brightest, allowing one run on three hits and a walk, striking out seven. He is now 4-2 with a 1.54 ERA in his postseason career, having won each of his past three playoff starts.
“I actually don't get too caught up on being good in the postseason and all that,” Tanaka said through a translator. “Come to think about it, I think it's still a small sample. My thing is, just go out there and be the best that you can be, compete and, yeah, just be the best that you can be.”
Things got a little messy with one out in the first inning after Tanaka hit Jorge Polanco with a pitch and allowed an infield single by Nelson Cruz. The Twins were in prime position to take an early lead, but Tanaka induced a double-play ball off the bat of Eddie Rosario, finishing the inning-ending 3-6-1 with a sprint toward first base.
“That’s the Tanaka that we know,” Gary Sanchez said through a translator.
After escaping that rocky opening frame, Tanaka sat down the next six Twins, four via strikeout. His reward was a seven-run outburst by the Yanks’ offense in the bottom of the third that sent him back to the mound with an eight-run cushion.
“It's big for the team, getting that type of offense,” Tanaka said. “You still have to go out there and you still have to shut down the opponent.”
The Twins rallied with one out, using a Cruz walk and back-to-back singles by Rosario and Mitch Garver to get on the board. With Chad Green warming up in the bullpen, Tanaka struck out both Luis Arraez and Miguel Sano to end the threat, limiting the damage to a single run.
“He’s an artist out there,” Aaron Judge said. “He mixes offspeeds well, sneaks a fastball in when he needs to in any situation. I was happy to hear he was pitching Game 2; he pitches well at home. Every postseason, he always has a special game. I think they had one hit there for quite a while. It’s impressive what he does in the postseason.”
Tanaka tossed another 1-2-3 inning in the fifth, picking up his seventh strikeout in the process.
"With Tanaka, you have to be disciplined,” Cruz said. “He definitely tests your discipline out there. He pitched pretty good. He made you swing at pitches out of the strike zone a lot.”
Despite a modest pitch count of 83, Tanaka’s night was over after the fifth, as Boone turned to his bullpen to protect the healthy lead.
“He's just really good at his craft,” Boone said. “He understands his body, his mechanics, can do a lot of things with the ball; I thought today was pretty sharp. I thought he threw some good splits. The slider was a real factor for him. I saw him elevate the heater a little bit at times when he needed to and gave us just what we needed and really set a good tone for us to send us off to Minnesota in a good position.”
Should the series return to Yankee Stadium for a Game 5 on Thursday, both Game 1 starter James Paxton and Tanaka would be available to pitch on regular rest, but the Yankees are hopeful that they can finish off the Twins in Minneapolis, pushing the pair’s next starts to the AL Championship Series.
Tanaka improved to 6-0 with a 2.21 ERA in six lifetime starts against the Twins, the only AL team that hasn't hit a home run against him. The first five of those wins came during the regular season, but on Saturday, Minnesota got its first look at the October version of Tanaka, who has become as close to a sure thing for the Yanks as there can be.
“I always feel good when we're giving the ball to Masa,” Boone said. “I feel like he's in a pretty good place here after one start now in the postseason.”