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: Friday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Friday’s scores and highlights:

Reds 5, Phillies 2: Tim Adleman tapped into some kind of magic on Friday, redeeming his 6.19 ERA with eight innings of one-hit ball against the Phillies. Any hint of a no-hitter was erased in the first inning, when the right-hander served up a 1-2 base hit to Andres Blanco and plunked Aaron Altherr in the next at-bat. He undid the Phillies’ damage with an inning-ending double play and proceeded to retire the next 16 consecutive batters, finally breaking his streak on a pair of walks in the seventh and eighth.

Granted, Adleman’s breakout came against the fifth-worst offense in the National League — but a win is a win, and the Reds will take any leg up in the standings they can get.

Athletics 4, Yankees 1: After seven fierce innings of a pitcher’s duel, including Masahiro Tanaka‘s career-high 13 strikeouts and Sean Manaea‘s first seven-inning outing since 2016, the Yankees’ bullpen proved to be their undoing. Tyler Clippard advanced Adam Rosales to third base on an errant pickoff throw, then allowed a stolen base, walk, and back-to-back singles to give the A’s a two-run lead in the eighth inning. Jonathan Holder fared little better, losing a 2-0 battle with Stephen Vogt in the ninth and giving up the two-run homer that would seal the A’s 22nd win of the season.

Nationals 5, Padres 1: The Nationals still have a comfortable lead atop the NL East division, and they appear to have made a full recovery from their slump last week, going 4-1 on the road against the Braves and Mariners. There’s no bad time for a Max Scherzer shutdown performance, however, and that’s just what they got during Friday’s win. Scherzer laid out 13 strikeouts in a season-best performance, holding the Padres to three hits and extending his all-time record to 53 double-strikeout appearances.

Mets 8, Pirates 1: Jacob deGrom is finally getting his groove back. Following a seven-inning shutout against the Angels last week, the right-hander delivered 8 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Pirates, whiffing 10 of 32 batters for his fifth double-strikeout performance of the year.

Unsurprisingly, deGrom’s near-complete game was the longest outing by a Mets’ starter in 2017.

Blue Jays 7, Rangers 6: Only two weeks ago, Devon Travis had yet to crest the Mendoza line. Now, he appears to be making steady progress toward another .300 average after hitting his second career grand slam in the Blue Jay’s 7-6 win on Friday night.

The knock preceded Travis’ one-out double in the fourth inning, his 15th of the month and the most by any Blue Jays hitter in the month of May. That might not be enough to dig the Blue Jays out of last place in the AL East, but they’ve now won four consecutive games and have started to close in on the fourth-place Rays.

Royals 6, Indians 4: The Royals technically edged out the Indians on Friday, but the Indians were treated to a repeat visit from the Rally Squirrel, so who’s to say who the real winner is here?

Marlins 8, Angels 5: Giancarlo Stanton is made of the stuff superheroes dreamed of. Who else would hit a leadoff home run and manage, through no extraordinary effort, to physically damage the wall in center field?

The Angels, meanwhile, have now taken three losses in a row. Albert Pujols went 2-for-4 with a single and a double, but is still stuck at No. 597 in his quest for 600 career home runs.

Red Sox 3, Mariners 0: The Red Sox are fast closing in on first place in the AL East, and nothing is going to stand in their way now — not Dustin Pedroia‘s temporary absence, not the last-place Mariners, and certainly not a couple hours of rain. Eduardo Rodriguez dominated in his fourth start of the year, holding the Mariners at arm’s length through six scoreless innings and striking out four of 24 batters. Not a single run was scored via a hit, from Josh Rutledge‘s RBI groundout in the second inning to a run-scoring wild pitch by Yovani Gallardo and a passed ball by Mike Zunino in the sixth.

Diamondbacks 4, Brewers 2 (10 innings): There’s never a good time for a blown save, but snapping a scoreless streak of 13 1/3 innings with a blown save in the ninth inning, with two outs and a 404-foot game-tying home run by the .235-average Chris Iannetta is far from ideal.

The Brewers couldn’t get back on track after Corey Knebel‘s mistake, and lost in the 10th after Wily Peralta allowed a run on a wild pitch and Jake Lamb clobbered an RBI double to secure the win.

Astros 2, Orioles 0: Don’t worry, the Astros are still the best team in baseball. They padded an impressive nine-game lead on Friday night, taking their fourth win of the week with seven sterling innings from Joe MusgroveKen Giles‘ 14th save of the season and a modest two home runs from Jake Marisnick and Carlos Beltran.

White Sox 8, Tigers 2: It was a long and rainy night for the Tigers, who were rained out during Game 1 of a doubleheader, sat through a one-hour, 25-minute rain delay in Game 2, and still lost poorly to the White Sox. Matt Boyd continued to look shaky on the mound, delivering nine hits and three runs over 4 2/3 innings, and striking out just three of 23 batters. Alex Avila pulled the Tigers within a run of tying the game, smashing a 419-foot home run to center field in the fifth inning, but the Tigers were left clueless at the plate against the White Sox’ ever-revolving carousel of relievers.

Rays 5, Twins 2: The best part of the Rays’ win wasn’t the way they extended their win streak to three games, nor was it Logan Morrison‘s home run, Kevin Kiermaier‘s blast or Steven Souza Jr.’s eighth-inning homer. It was the reminder that sometimes, baseball is little more than pure, glorious entertainment:

Souza Jr. took to Twitter following the game to find out just how far off the mark he was:

Rockies 10, Cardinals 0: The Diamondbacks and Dodgers are going to have a difficult time catching the Rockies in the NL West if Colorado keeps turning out wins like this one. They were dominant in every aspect of Friday’s game, flummoxing the Cardinals at the plate with eight scoreless frames from Antonio Senzatela and returning in the ninth with a flawless 12-pitch inning by Jordan Lyles.

The Rockies’ offense was no less formidable at the plate, putting up an eight-spot in the eighth inning that featured, among other things, two home runs from Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds and Nolan Arenado‘s 17th double of the season. Blackmon went 4-for-4 for the first time since 2016, recording an RBI triple, home run and single to come one double shy of hitting for the cycle.

Dodgers 4, Cubs 0: All the hope that Jake Arrieta gave the Cubs during his last start was erased on Friday. Instead of building on the six-inning shutout he delivered against the Brewers, Arrieta found himself mired in a nine-hit, four-run performance against the Dodgers, striking out nine of 23 batters and allowing two home runs for the fourth time this season. The Cubs’ offense couldn’t catch a break against Alex Wood, or Pedro Baez, or Chris Hatcher, failing to produce a single run and eventually taking their third shutout of the month.

Braves 2, Giants 0: It wasn’t so long ago that Matt Cain was a workhorse, consistently turning in 200+ innings and 3.0+ fWAR from season to season. While his glory days are well behind him now, Cain flashed a little of that dominance on Friday, going seven innings with two runs, a walk and three strikeouts against the Braves. Alas, it wasn’t enough to carry the Giants to a much-needed win: opposing starter Jaime Garcia‘s two-run single was all the team needed to edge out the Giants for their 21st win of the year.

Giancarlo Stanton dented the outfield wall in Marlins Park

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If we haven’t said it before, it bears repeating: When it comes to pure muscle mass and power, no major league player rivals the sheer force of Giancarlo Stanton. His record-setting 504-foot home run in 2016 has yet to be bested in the Statcast era (though it narrowly beat out Jake Arrieta‘s 503-foot blast in 2015, because baseball is weird), he broke the Dodgers’ outfield fence on an attempted catch at the wall last Sunday, and he carries 25 home runs that have each exceeded 460 feet.

It should come as little surprise, then, that when Stanton muscled his 12th home run of the season against the Angels on Friday night, it not only hit the batter’s eye, but left a visible dent in the wall:

Stanton’s mammoth shot put the Marlins on the board in the first inning, setting the stage for a four-run effort that gave the club an early lead. The home run measured a cool 462 feet, the slugger’s longest of the season. He still has a little ways to go to catch up to the 2017 season leader, Jake Lamb, whose 481-foot home run against the Rockies currently leads the pack.

The next item on Stanton’s bucket list? If we’re lucky, maybe something a little like this: