ARLINGTON, Texas — When Masahiro Tanaka takes the Yankee Stadium mound Sunday afternoon, he will throw the first pitch against the Angels and start a game that is getting a lot of attention.
While Tanaka won’t face two-way stud Shohei Ohtani in the batters box, he will be matched against his countryman, as Ohtani is slated to start for the Angels. That matchup has created a big buzz in the United States and Japan.
However, for Tanaka to be competitive against the Angels, he has to pitch better than he has so far in 10 starts this season. Yes, he is 5-2, but that is more the product of the Yankees’ lethal lineup than Tanaka’s work on the mound, which is reflected in a chubby 4.95 ERA.
“Frustrating, or disappointing might be the right word. I feel like I am not totally contributing as much as I want to,’’ Tanaka said through a translator when asked about his performance this season before Wednesday night’s game against the Rangers at Globe Life Park. “We have a good team and a good offensive lineup. It seems like at this point, because of that I am able to get a couple of wins. Looking at my personal performance I think it’s disappointing.’’
Actually, it’s very close to what Tanaka did during the regular season a year ago before pitching very effectively in the postseason. In 30 starts, Tanaka went 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA. In 178 innings, he allowed 180 hits, struck out 194 and walked 41. This year in 56 ¹/₃ innings, he has given up 48 hits, struck out 50 and issued 14 walks. What the Yankees would like to see from the 29-year-old right-hander is the pitcher who went 2-1 in three postseason starts and had a 0.90 ERA.
“This never really changes, it’s command, command of all the pitches,’’ Tanaka said when asked if there was one area he needed to improve. “I don’t have overpowering stuff so I have to rely on command more than anything.’’
Tanaka’s velocity on his pitches hasn’t taken drastic dips, and one theory for his struggles is that hitters are ignoring pitches other than fastballs. Hence, they aren’t chasing pitches as much as they did in the past.
As far as Sunday’s game, Tanaka says Ohtani is the reason for the attention.
“I think it is two Japanese pitchers going at each other at this level, MLB, is a good thing. It might become part of history in major league baseball and Japan as well,’’ Tanaka said. “But I think all the attention we are receiving now for this match-up on Sunday is because of how sensational Ohtani has been this season. I think it’s on him that we are getting this attention.’’
During the offseason the Yankees believed Ohtani, 23, would sign with them as a free agent, but he landed in Anaheim, where the Angels allow him to pitch and hit. That he has done both very well has added to the legend the right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter developed in Japan.
Ohtani, who likely will be the Angels’ DH on Friday night, went into Wednesday batting .310 (27-for-87) with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .959 OPS in 25 games at the plate. On the mound he is 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA in seven starts and has struck out 52 and walked 14 in 40 ¹/₃ innings.
“On a personal level, it is bringing a lot of attention once everybody knew we were lined up to pitch against each other I guess it is being considered a very big thing in Japan,’’ Tanaka said.
It would be a bigger thing for the Yankees if Tanaka can use Sunday as a springboard to getting back to the pitcher he was last October rather than the one he has been in April and May.
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