NEW YORK -- There have been a few test drives this season in which Masahiro Tanaka has raised his game to a new level, like a motorist pushing the accelerator on an open highway, just to see if the car can handle it. He did it once in Boston in
NEW YORK -- There have been a few test drives this season in which Masahiro Tanaka has raised his game to a new level, like a motorist pushing the accelerator on an open highway, just to see if the car can handle it. He did it once in Boston in April by tossing a shutout, having felt slighted as an underdog against Chris Sale, and again in a long-awaited matchup against fellow countryman Yu Darvish in June (eight innings, nine strikeouts).
They served as excellent preparation, with Tanaka continuing to savor the playoff excitement that prompted him to select New York as his landing spot more than three years ago. By outdueling Dallas Keuchel for a 5-0 win in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World, Tanaka's Yankees are on the precipice of their first World Series since 2009.
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"I just feel like I'm keeping it really simple," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "You go out there and you fight and you empty the tank. I think I'm just really clear of what I need to do out there."
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Taking advantage of a pull-happy Astros lineup, Tanaka allowed just three hits and a walk while striking out eight over seven dominant frames, pitching his way out of jams in the second and fifth innings. He has fired 22 straight scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium and is 7-1 with a 0.96 ERA in his past eight starts in the Bronx.
"I'm really glad how everything turned out, but I can't forget that it's not over," Tanaka said. "We'll see what happens moving forward, but I will start preparing myself for another start tomorrow."
That would come in the World Series, should the Yanks find a way to win one of their next two contests in Houston. Despite an up-and-down regular season, Tanaka's 0.90 ERA in the playoffs would have manager Joe Girardi feeling good about handing the ball to Tanaka.
"You look at his three starts in the playoffs, they've been special," Girardi said. "I think he understands that he has to [raise his game]. We've seen it a number of times. I thought he did it against Darvish [on June 23]. I've seen it a number of times from him. He's raised it as high as I've seen in the playoffs and the last start of the [regular] season."
The effort dropped Tanaka's career postseason ERA to 1.44, the third best all time for a Yankees hurler. Tanaka became just the third Yankee to turn in two starts of at least seven scoreless innings in a single postseason, joining Whitey Ford (1960) and Roger Clemens (2000).
"He's been doing it all postseason. He was just dominant," the Yanks' Todd Frazier said. "He does all this crazy stuff and then the ball just disappears on batters. I couldn't be more happy for him. He's a great guy, on and off the field. What a performance. Just gutsy. Big time win for him."
Tanaka threw 103 pitches, including 22 splitters and 40 sliders. His slider registered 10 called strikes and six swinging strikes, while his splitter got one called strike and four whiffs.
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"I thought he was good in Game 1 as well," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "He changed his game plan, threw a few more splits today, some finish fastballs which are rare for him. He's usually a secondary pitcher late in at-bats."
In the second inning, Tanaka surrendered a leadoff double to Yuli Gurriel -- the only extra-base hit he allowed -- but escaped unscathed by inducing three groundouts, including a Carlos Beltran grounder to second base with one out and the infield in.
"He was pitching on the edges. That's what he does," Houston's Alex Bregman said. "He's going to throw fastballs to the edges to both sides of the plate, he's going to throw splitters down in the zone. His slider was good tonight. It was on the edges. I mean, he's a good pitcher and we didn't capitalize when we needed to."
The Astros threatened again in the fifth, when Marwin Gonzalez singled and Brian McCann worked a one-out walk. Tanaka struck out George Springer looking on 1-2 fastball on the outside corner before getting Josh Reddick to chase on a filthy 1-2 splitter down and away to get out of the inning.
The normally stoic Tanaka didn't bother to contain his excitement, screaming and pumping his fist before jogging to the first-base line. In all facets, this is no time for holding back.
"That's a wonderful thing, when you have a pitcher that steps his game up in the biggest moments," Chase Headley said. "That's huge. Our starting pitching has been phenomenal, and in the postseason, he has basically been unhittable."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.