Masahiro Tanaka

Inside Masahiro Tanaka’s debut

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TAMPA — The original plan was to go sit in the crowd and drink beer at the Astros-Tigers game, but when it was announced that Masahiro Tanaka was making his spring training debut in Tampa today, plans changed. I got in the car at 6:30 this morning and headed to Steinbrenner Field early to take in the craziness of the opening act of Tanaka’s U.S. career.

As was the case with Yu Darvish’s first start in Arizona two years ago, the general feeling around the ballpark today was anything but dull. Throngs of reporters. I’d say over 100, but it’s hard to get a count. They set up 30 temporary folding chairs and tables in the press box in addition to the 30+ permanent seats. That still left several print journalists with no place to sit. Not that having a seat meant a great view or anything. And that’s before you count the dozens of photographers, camera crews and correspondents, mostly Japanese, who were wandering around, looking for places to set up.

But it’s not like the Yankees and their staff treated it like a crazy day. Indeed, every cliche you’ve ever heard about the Yankees being big time and professional applied today, much to the organization’s credit. The media relations office was unflappable and had everything at the ready. There were enough copies of rosters and information sheets and enough coffee and bottles of water for everyone. The internet worked. The parking attendants knew where everyone was supposed to go. That sounds like it should be the expectation, but it’s really not. Most clubs do fine on normal days, but on odd days where big news or events are happening at a spring training ballpark, there’s usually some uncertainty and confusion. The Yankees’ most normal of days are like most clubs’ big days. They’ve seen it all and can handle it all.

Steinbrenner Field is the most major league facility I’ve seen in spring training, and that extends to the clubhouse too. It’s large and plush and today it was quiet once you adjusted for the increased media presence. Players went about their business. Joe Girardi and his coaches went about theirs. Most questions about Tanaka were met with shrugs or jokes. They’ve lived with Ichiro for a couple of years. A-Rod’s myriad distractions. Jeter’s retirement stuff. New, big name players arriving each season and old, famous retired players showing up all the time. It’s a place where Derek Jeter, Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson walk around as if it’s no big deal. Where the guys who pitch batting practice are all former All-Stars. Hell, the ghost of Mickey Mantle could show up and start shaking hands and making small talk and no one would bat an eye, I figure.

Not that Tanaka goes unnoticed. Indeed, the press was set up, waiting for his arrival in the tunnel starting at 8 AM:

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He walked through, quickly, at 11:20 AM:

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All that sitting around just to get a quick shot of the guy. After that he disappeared into the clubhouse and wasn’t seen until game time.

I walked out into the stands after the gates opened to talk to some fans in order to get their views of their new Tanaka-rich world. There was a common thread running through their sentiments. Sin Sindoni of Alexandria, Virginia (originally from New York) said that she wasn’t aware that Tanaka was pitching today. But seeing him today, even if a nice bonus, isn’t exactly the ultimate end.

“If he gets us back to the World Series, that’s all that matters,” she said. Her brother Mike Sindoni, of New Boston, New Hampshire said much the same thing.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him. Hopefully he makes us better,” he said.

I walked farther down the concourse and spoke with Jose Tavera, of Tampa. Jose didn’t know Tanaka was pitching today until I told him and was pleased to hear it.

“I’m excited to see what he has to offer,” he said. ” I’m excited for the Yankees. Hopefully he’ll help them get back to the playoffs and the World Series.”

The Yankees have long set such expectations for themselves. I’ve sometimes taken it as a bit of a marketing ploy — being a Championship Team is the Yankees’ brand, and they clearly sell the “anything less than a World Series victory is a disappointment” thing. But the fans clearly buy into it. And in so doing, they make additions like Tanaka something less of a central focus than fans of some team might make of their new additions. Robinson Cano may be a big deal in Seattle. The Indians have built an entire years-long marketing campaign around Nick Swisher. The Yankees sell championship baseball, and in so doing fans only get excited about someone exotic and new like Tanaka insofar as he helps them to that goal.

Joe Girardi started the game with CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda for two innings a piece. Then Tanaka took over in the top of the fifth. Here’s his first pitch thrown in anger in the United States:

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That was a strike.  After that he allowed a leadoff single to Darin Ruf before retiring Cody Asche and Cameron Rup on flies to left. He pitched the count full against Cesar Hernandez before ultimately striking him out. If you were watching on TV you had a better view of his actual stuff, but he looked pretty good from the first base line. Back out for the sixth, he struck out Ben Revere on three swinging strikes, allowed a Ronny Cedeno single to center, struck out Domonic Brown and then got Kelly Dugan to fly out to center.

As I said in my recap earlier, Tanaka looked pretty good. Like you would expect a major league veteran to look around the first of March. The breaking ball was a bit iffy, the fastball was solid and the splitter was impressive. There is obviously more in his tank than he showed today, but he did dig down a couple of times to register Ks.

After the game Tanaka faced a much bigger challenge than anything the Phillies threw at him:

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To say there’s a bit of interest in him is the understatement of the century. He was shuttled back and forth along this wall, taking questions from Japanese print and TV media here, then down to where those blue backdrops are near the upper right for on-camera interviews with YES Network, ESPN and Japanese TV, where former Mariner Kaz Sasaki spoke with him. Tanaka was composed and answered every question like a ballplayer might — he felt good, he’s working on things, he’s happy to play in games, he looks forward to playing in front of American crowds, etc. — but you wonder how this sort of scrutiny will feel after six or seven months of it. When he can’t just shower, dress, answer a couple of questions and then go like 20 or 22 of his 25 teammates can. Maybe Ichiro Suzuki will buy him a watch for taking the heat off of him after all of these years. Maybe Suzuki can also help him adjust to this sort of thing.

Thus endeth the first day — the first real day, anyway — in Masahiro Tanaka’s major league career. And his first day under a microscope as powerful as the one focusing on Japanese stars making their way in the U.S.A. can be.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 24:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the fifth inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. And here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Pirates 4: Evan Gattis and Carlos Correa homer as the Astros scratch out five runs off of Gerrit Cole. Finishing the road trip 5-2 has to make the Astros feel a bit better about things at the moment. They’re still four and a half back with four teams ahead of them in the Wild Card, but there’s still time.

Brewers 7, Rockies 1: Two homers from Ryan Braun, driving in three while Zach Davis allowed one run over six, striking out eight. Four wins in a row for Milwaukee. That means nothing for playoff purposes — they ain’t in the conversation — but they can mention it in the holiday letter.

Athletics 5, Indians 1: Kendall Graveman allowed one run while pitching into the seventh while his teammates scratched out runs with singles, sac flies and reaching on errors. The Indians scored three runs total in this three game series. They somehow managed to win one of the three games but, boy howdy, that’s not what a playoff team wants to do against a losing team with the worst defense in baseball.

Yankees 5, Mariners 0: Gary Sanchez homered again, his seventh in his past nine games and his ninth overall. The Mariners intentionally walked him twice, which had Joe Girardi talking about how unusual it is for a team to do that to a rookie and how much respect it shows for his power. Probably worth mentioning that the guy they walked him in order to get to was Mark Teixeira, who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a friggin’ boat anymore, but I get why Girardi didn’t mention that. Masahiro Tanaka tossed seven shutout innings.

Cubs 6, Padres 3: Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs over six innings which actually increased his ERA from 2.16 to 2.19. He leads all of baseball in that department nonetheless. Ben Zobrist had two hits including a triple which knocked in two.

Orioles 10, Nationals 8: Zack Britton allowed a run on an Anthony Rendon RBI double but his ERA remains a nice 0.69. The reason he was in the game was because Daniel Murphy hit a late grand slam while the Nats were down by seven, transforming a blowout into a save situation. I wonder if Britton had sort of mentally written off his need to pitch before going in. Who knows. Manny Machado and Matt Wieters each drove in four. The win plus the Blue Jays and Red Sox losing brings Baltimore back to within one game of the division leaders.

Angels 8, Blue Jays 2: Albert Pujols homered, pushing him past Mark McGwire on the all-time list. He’s now 10th in history with 584 bombs. He had four hits in all and three RBI. Mike Trout homered too and Matt Shoemaker tossed six shutout innings.

Rangers 6, Reds 5: Yu Darvish of all people homered and Adrian Beltre hit a tiebreaking RBI double in the eighth. The Rangers had a three-run lead, blew it, but pulled it out in the end. Speaking of Rangers, y’all should go see the movie “Hell or Highwater.” I took a night off of baseball last night and saw it and it was amazing. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger of the law enforcement variety and he’s fantastic. Chris Pine was something of a revelation, though, playing a west Texas dude who finds himself living an outlaw life due to desperate circumstances. Just a good, tight, well-written and well-acted flick.

Marlins 3, Royals 0: The Royals nine-game winning streak ends thanks to Jose Fernandez’s nine strikeouts in seven shutout innings. Christian Yelich singled in two. Best news of the night for Miami, though, was trading for Jeff Francoeur. That’s not great for baseball purposes, but he really is a nice young man who will light your day up with his smile.

Rays 4, Red Sox 3: Boston had an early three-run lead that was cut to 3-2 before Evan Longoria‘s eighth inning homer tied things up and forced extras. In the 11th Boston reliever Heath Hembree got two outs before giving up a double to Luke Maile. Then Hembree dropped the toss while covering first base on a Kevin Kiermaier grounder, allowing Maile to score from second. That doesn’t exactly make Kiermaier a hero in this situation, but he made the contact that resulted in the winning run so he is still The Cool Cat of the game, and is still worthy of an award: a video from one year ago today of my kitty cat Scully eating cold oatmeal out of a cup on my desk. She’s the cuuuuuutest. Congratulations, Kevin!

Phillies 5, White Sox 3Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez homered. The White Sox sure had a crappy day yesterday. 

Tigers 9, Twins 4: Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including a homer. The suddenly useful Justin Upton homered as well. Cabrera was a triple shy of the cycle, which we’d like to remind you still isn’t a notable thing.

Cardinals 8, Mets 1: The Cards smacked three homers off of Jacob deGrom who wasn’t too deGreat last night. Carlos Martinez allowed one run over eight innings, however, and that’ll do just deFine.

Diamondbacks 10, Braves 9: Brandon Drury hit a walkoff sac fly in the 11th. Drury was a Braves draft pick once upon a time. They traded him to Arizona to get Justin Upton. That seems like it was about 10,000 years ago.

Dodgers 1, Giants 0: Rich Hill made his Dodgers debut and it was worth the wait: six shutout innings. Four members of the bullpen tossed three more to complete the shutout, which allowed Justin Turner‘s fourth inning solo homer to stand up. A three-game lead in the West now for L.A. This Giants second half is a nightmare.

Albert Pujols passes Mark McGwire with 584th career home run

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs out a double during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Angels 14-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Angels DH Albert Pujols passed Mark McGwire for sole possession of 10th place on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard, slugging his 584th career home run in the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays.

Mike Trout had already slugged a solo home run off of Jays starter Marco Estrada to bring Pujols to the dish. Pujols jumped on an 0-1 cut fastball, sending it out to left-center field, clearing the fence by a few feet.

Pujols, who finished 4-for-4 with the homer and an RBI double, is batting .257/.321/.441 with 24 home runs and 99 RBI on the year. His next target on the home run leaderboard is Frank Robinson at 586.