Masahiro’s Grand Game

Bronx, N.Y., September 29, 2017; Yankees 4, Toronto 0 — With the Yankees’ hopes of winning the AL East division title hanging by the thinnest of threads, one-time ace Masahiro Tanaka posted a truly unique first inning Friday afternoon. He struck out the side, but it wasn’t on nine straight pitches, something that would have piqued the attention of both statheads and history buffs alike. But what would set this outing apart was that none of the nine strikes (of 13 pitches) hit a bat, a trend that would coninue through a delightful, cool afternoon in the Bronx.

Once Tanaka finished vanquishing the visitors in one-two-three fashion, the home team put up two quick (and quiet) runs, easing any lingering anxiety of the reported-to-be 35,000-strong crowd, so we could relax and enjoy the masterpiece being spun before us. Tanaka pounded out 15 strike outs (14 of them swinging) through seven dominant innings, mesmerizing rooting fans and Blue Jays batters alike. Looking back, the (again) 13-pitch, nine-strike second was the lone disappointment, the only frame where the crafty righty failed to strike out at least two. The fastball, mostly at 93 mph, was crisp; the sliders elusive and baffling; and the splitter a disappearing cipher whenever a wooden bat was deployed with purpose.

Did I mention he was perfect two outs into the fifth? Or that once Austin Romine picked Ezequiel Carrera — who broke it up when Starlin Castro could not get a throw off following a diving grab of a sharp grounder up the middle — off second, Tanaka had faced the minimum 15 through five innings? Masahiro would allow a hit in the sixth and in the seventh, but retired five of six whiffing to keep Toronto off the board.

As is not the case, perhaps, in many well-pitched games, the defense did not play a huge part in this one, but Castro is the exception; aside from his play on Carrera, his dive, grab, and throw to first on a Michael Saunders shot up the middle in the second brought much of the crowd to their feet. Aaron Judge and Greg Bird (the latter 2-for-2, with a sac fly, two rbi’s, and a hard liner into the right field corner against a lefty) drove in singleton runs in the fifth and sixth to forge the final score, freeing us to wonder about how long Tanaka would go, how many K’s he would get.

The first answer is seven innings, with David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman closing up around an unfortunate two-batter adventure by Dellin Betances starting the ninth. The three strike outs between them brought the Yankee total to 18, but the impressive stat here is that Tanaka is the first Yankee hurler to ever fan 15, while surrendering no walks or earned runs. The. First. Ever.

The 68/35 strikes/balls ratio of Masahiro’s 103 tosses averages to the 2/1 you’d expect from a quality start. But here’s the thing. Roughly half the strikes recorded in a major league start result from a bat hitting a ball. Some web spinners confuse enough to garner lots of taken strikes; others fool ‘em into a swing and a miss again and again. But still, most do one or the other, not both. Jays batters took 22 strikes today, and they swung and missed 22 times. Just 24 times were they able to — albeit most often feebly — make contact with the ball, very much like a .33/.33/.33 breakdown. I score. I count. It’s not the kind of number you see often.

As is no surprise to anyone, the Yanks are on a mission to win three while Boston loses three, for a final shot at the AL East title. On September 29, 1946, back when the pennant was settled based on regular season record, losses by both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers sent them into the first-ever MLB playoff for the right to play in the World Series. (St. Louis would win a three-game playoff, 2-0.) And also on this day, Don Mattingly hit his record-setting sixth grand slam of the 1987 season. The Yanks scored four today, but with no long balls. The only grand thing about this one was the pitching of Masahiro Tanaka.