TORONTO (CBSNewYork/AP) — Eleven years ago, a highly touted Japanese import made his major league debut for the New York Yankees in Canada. Hideki Matsui had one hit that night in March 2003, driving home Derek Jeter with an RBI single off Roy Halladay in his first at-bat.
Now, the Yankees are going across the border to unveil another Japanese star. This time, it’s Masahiro Tanaka’s turn to begin his big league career in Toronto.
One of New York’s marquee offseason acquisitions, Tanaka will start a regular season game for the first time Friday night as the Yankees visit the Blue Jays in Toronto’s home opener. Right-hander Dustin McGowan will start for the Blue Jays.
“I would think there will be a ton of attention on (Tanaka) tomorrow, just because of what he did last year in Japan, the contract he signed, who he signed it with and it being opening day in Toronto,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before New York played at Houston Thursday.
Indeed, fans in both Japan and North America will be eager to follow the fortunes of Tanaka, who cost the Yankees $175 million when they signed him in January. New York gave the 25-year-old right-hander a seven-year, $155 million contract, the highest ever for an international free agent, and paid a $20 million posting fee to his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Tanaka earned that deal after finishing 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in Japan last year. He was almost as sharp in his first big league spring training, going 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA in five games, striking out 26 and walking three in 21 innings.
“We’ve seen him in spring training but you want to see what a guy’s like when the real bright lights turn on,” Girardi said. “We expect him to do just fine, but you still want to see him.”
Former All-Star pitcher Al Leiter believes Tanaka has to be one of the Yankees’ top starters “for them to compete.”
“Any team that wants to go deep into the playoffs and win a World Series needs three quality starters,” Leiter told the New York Post. “For the Yankees to compete in the East he has to be quality and that’s 200-plus innings, an ERA in the 3’s and a 15-plus wins.”
New York’s sizable outlay on Tanaka was part of a busy offseason. In all, the Yankees committed $438 million to four free agents, including outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, and catcher Brian McCann. That spending spree came after the Yankees missed the playoffs for just the second time in 19 seasons. New York finished 85-77, its worst record since 1992.
The Yankees had been tracking Tanaka since 2007, his rookie season in Japan, scouting more than a dozen of his starts. New York beat out several teams for his signature, including Arizona, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Astros.
Tanaka flew out of Houston around midday Thursday to get to Toronto early and settle in before his debut. Before leaving, he said through an interpreter that his excitement level was “getting up there” ahead of Friday’s start.
“I’m sure I will be amped up a little bit but not to the point where I’m worried about that,” Tanaka said. “I feel honored that I’m getting this sort of attention. But for me it’s just going up on the mound and trying to get outs.”
Pent up energy will also be an issue for Toronto’s McGowan, who’ll be making his first big league start since September 2011. McGowan missed all of 2012 with foot and shoulder injuries, and made 25 appearances out of the bullpen last year.
“I’ll be jacked up, excited,” McGowan said of facing the Yankees in front of a sold-out stadium. “I keep thinking about it every day. I’m already ready to go. That day is going to be special.”
The oft-injured but undeniably talented McGowan, a first-round pick in 2000, also missed all of 2009 and 2010 with arm issues. He was a surprise addition to Toronto’s rotation, earned the fifth spot after some late spring success and a string of poor starts by incumbent left-hander J.A. Happ.
The Yankees went 14-5 against the Blue jays in 2013, but finished 4-5 in Toronto.
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