Tanaka Lightning

Bronx, N.Y., June 17, 2014 — Although to all reports, Masahiro Tanaka is delighted to be on a team with the great baseball history that the New York Yankees have, there is no way we can yet know how specifically he gets involved with the highlights that have taken place day by day over the years. What is clear, however, is that he is writing a whole new page in that history himself.

Three pitches into Tanaka’s first major league start six weeks ago, Toronto’s Melky Cabrera homered, a rude reception for major league baseball’s new golden boy. But Ma Kun, an honorary name with which Tanaka was often referred to in Japan, proved then that he is no china doll; he steeled himself and beat the Blue Jays that game for his first win. And he took another punch Tuesday night, as Jose Reyes blasted his first pitch over Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right, 1-0 Toronto. Two outs and two hits later, he got Dioner Navarro for his second strike out, and retired the visitors to Yankee Stadium on his 22nd pitch.

With his teammates succumbing in seven out of eight at bats around a walk into the third inning, Tanaka would never allow three batters to reach again, nor would he fail to strike out a batter until the sixth inning, his last frame. Masahiro struggled with his control this time out, but not with his strike out pitch, whiffing 10 Jays batters in five innings, nine of them swinging, including three straight in the fifth, his only frame where no Toronto batter would reach. But when he slipped a 3-0 fastball past Navarro with two down in the fourth, he had missed on 22 of 55 throws, a strike percentage well below his usual. The five-pitch walk to Juan Francisco to lead off the fourth was his second free pass. And at 62 throws to garner nine outs, a sixth inning was becoming an improbability.

But Ma Kun stiffened, throwing 30 strikes in his next 42 tosses, sufficient to hand the game to his bullpen with 104 pitches and six frames behind him. Five strike outs in the fourth and fifth and three ground ball outs in the sixth finished his night. Among the six grounders he got on the night were two great plays up the middle he made himself, deflecting hot shots off his glove and recovering in time to peg the runner out.

By the time Tanaka left, the Yanks had carved out a 3-1 lead on minimal offense. Struggling third baseman Kelly Johnson’s double in the third, their first hit and one of his two, was their first safety, and Brett Gardner did not waste it, scoring Johnson and himself when his subsequent drive into the right field corner struck the screen attached to the foul pole. Captain Derek Jeter’s following hit was wasted, but not his second one in the fifth. A wild pitch and fielder’s choice moved him to third, from where he scored on Marl Teixeira’s single. The 3-1 lead thus forged would represent the final score.

But with Tanaka gone after six, three innings had to be played and, although David Robertson would effectively struggle through four straight 3-2 counts and 26 pitches to earn the save, Dellin Betances would experience no such trouble retiring six straight in the seventh and eighth. Possessing two basically unhittable and very different pitches, Dellin does the highly unlikely; he strikes out lots of batters, and he does so with tiny pitch counts. He struck out three and strode off the mound after the eighth having thrown just 21 pitches.

It was a hot night, and a perfect one for baseball. The Yankees honored Career Gear, an organization that helps men make the transformation from poverty to employment, as their first Hope Week guests. But though the positive feelings buzzed through the night, much of the cool breezes that filtered through the Stadium early did not. The latter innings drama was played out in increasingly still air as a Yankee Stadium crowd that often seems to ignore the play before them grew intermittently silent and loud, hovering on the edge of their seats over every at bat, often every pitch.

To the surprise of no one, as Tanaka became one of the few pitchers to win 11 of 12 to start a major league baseball career, Derek Jeter, playing his final year, not only contributed, but achieved another cool number, scoring his 1,900th career run in the fifth. And Joe Girardi got into the action, as this was his 600th win as Yankee manager.

But the best numbers to talk about this night were in the teens, 15 and 18 to be exact, along with 36. Adding three Betances strike outs to the two Robertson used to get through the ninth to Ma Kun’s 10 gave the team 15 K’s. It stands as a fine tribute to the Yankee record, the 18 Ron Guidry posted exactly 36 years ago, on June 17, 1978, in a 4-0 win over the Anaheim Angels. There’s fireworks in the Bronx, but this year it’s

Tanaka Lightning