Knockout Punch

Bronx, N.Y., September 1, 2018; Yankees 2, Detroit 1 — Masahiro Tanaka tossed a beauty in a 2-1 win over Detroit in the Bronx Saturday, one that could have been a shutout but for some early bad luck, or a loss if he didn’t make a dazzling escape from a dangerous seventh inning late. This was done in front of a big crowd in pleasant temps, though not under sunny skies.

It may seem unfair to rave about the veteran Yankee righty in favor of Tigers lefty starter Daniel Norris, who left this one with an injury one out into the fifth having surrendered just one hit. Norris didn’t allow a baserunner until he walked Miguel Andujar leading off the fifth, but one of two ensuing back-to-back blasts cleared the fence. Norris was tagged with a 2-1 loss for his efforts, while Masahiro notched his 10th win despite having allowed seven hits over seven frames. But if this contest proved anything, it’s that not all hits are equal.

Six pitches into the top of the first, Detroit had their first three “hits” off Tanaka, two infield rollers and Nick Castellanos’s humpback soft liner over Gleyber Torres at short, to fill the bases. An immediate break back by Gleyber might have netted him a catch, but he chose to go for the leaping snag, and it cleared his glove by a foot or two. A lesser hurler might have crumbled under such immediate pressure, but Tanaka did well to escape the mess giving up just one run on Victor Martinez’s sac fly right down the left field line. Distance-wise, it was close enough for Brett Gardner to make a play at the plate, but Gardy was spent just getting to the ball and could not propel much of a throw.

From that point, Masahiro would issue one walk and give up two harmless singles through the sixth inning. At 72 pitches and up one run, he looked ready to carry this one through eight, when his biggest challenge — and most impressive response — put his fans and team through a 17-minute ordeal until he finished his day with a seven-pitch strike out of first baseman Jim Adduci.

Tanaka opened the pivotal frame up 0-2 on Grayson Greiner, but one pitch later the Tigers catcher poked a double the other way down the right field line. A Jacoby Jones single up the middle got the tying run on third with no outs, and an ensuing first-pitch Jones steal had the winning run on second. With the infield corners in, Luke Voit made a nifty play on a soft grounder toward first, holding the runners. Then all Masahiro did was to strike out Mikie Mahtook on five pitches, then Adduci, and his work in the early evening was done.

Tanaka won this one because he is a strike thrower, pounding 66 of 95 pitches in the zone. Twenty-three of 29 first pitches had him up in the count, where he could use his array of four- and two-seam fastballs and his split finger and slider to dominate the young Tigers batters. He struck out just four until the pivotal seventh, but the 15 swings and misses had his opponents on their heels much of the day.

Jonathan Holder quickly gave up a single to start the eighth, but coaxed a Martinez double play grounder, and a strike out got him out of there on nine pitches. Dellin Betances followed by proving that, yes, he can perform in the ninth inning to preserve a one-run lead, the lamentations of a fanbase who have suffered through a season that has their team 36 games above .500, despite the loss of key players to injury for significant periods of time, notwithstanding. Betances began his outing by striking out pinch hitter Jeimer Candelario, thus becoming the first reliever in mlb history to strike out 100 batters in five straight seasons. He covered first on a next-play grounder, then closed it out as Dawel Lugo rolled out to second base.

Yankee fans started this day heartened by their suddenly longer lineup, as newly acquired right fielder Andrew McCutcheon led off, and catcher Gary Sanchez returned from a somewhat extended stay on the disabled list. Cutch had a tough day, with two strike outs and a hit by pitch, but the entire team netted just two hits, so he gets a pass. Sanchez, on the other hand, made most of his contributions on defense, not only working with Tanaka to perfection, but handily blocking several split finder pitches in the dirt, a few with the tying run on third.

As were most, Gary was hitless on the day, but he lined a ball deep to left center following the Andujar walk in the fifth. Quirkily, September 1 happens to be the birthday of two different heavyweight boxing champions, punchers from different eras, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett (1866), and Rocky Marciano (1923). One pitch after Sanchez’s drive fell just short, a rejuvenated Torres lofted a deep fly in a similar direction. This was the hit of the day, it cleared the fence, it KO’d Norris, and it gave the Yanks their 2-1 victory.

It was a Knockout Punch.