By Jason Keidel
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Just as elitist Yankees fans were ready to write off the season after three games — as we love to do — a new-age pitcher showed old-world fortitude.
Masahiro Tanaka, who landed in the Bronx like other high-end Japanese players — wrapped in a foreign flag, mystery and millions — pitched with the chutzpah of a native New Yorker. He was tough, talented and unrelenting. He flashed the amnesia a pitcher needs after a foul first inning. And the Yankees pray that his fresh flesh can inspire the entire rotation, if not lead it.
While it’s not fair to assert that CC Sabathia is finished, it’s safe to assume he’s not CC Sabathia anymore. Not the one who carried the Brewers to the playoffs, or the one who led the Yanks to the ’09 World Series.
The hefty lefty doesn’t mortify hitters with gas, or bewilder batters with a freakish slider. His hulking frame, cap tilted to the side and a sidearm of filthy pitches kept hitters on their heels for years. But clearly time, usage and perhaps girth have taken their toll on the former ace.
So now we look toward Tanaka. The Yankees have dipped into the Far East DNA pool before. Sometimes it works out. Hideki Matsui. Sometimes it doesn’t. Kei Igawa. Hideki Irabu.
But Friday night wasn’t about a pitch count, box score or even final score as much as it was about a young man who got walloped the moment he ambled onto the mound. Tanaka was taken deep three pitches into his Yankees career. Melky Cabrera, the former, forlorn Yankee who’s now known as much for steroids as stats, welcomed Tanaka to America with a home run.
The instant, violent baptism ended with three runs in two innings. And an admittedly nervous Tanaka was shaken. Until he wasn’t. The new Yank retired 16 of the next 18 batters, earning a win swathed in symbolism and optimism.
Only the Yanks can kick the tires on an unknown, a pitcher whose resume was written 6,000 miles away, and spend $175 million while doing so. To the delight of haters around the globe, the Bombers constantly prove you can’t win with just your wallet. Despite their absurdly swollen war chest, the Yankees enter this season smothered in variables.
Sabathia has faltered. Hiroki Kuroda is good but old, and the latter will soon consume the former. Michael Pineda, whose been either hurt, fat or unfit his entire tenure, is finally throwing his first real pitches in two years. So Tanaka might as well pitch like an ace since he’s being paid like one.
But is he indeed an ace? Brian Cashman said Tanaka was a solid No. 3, which is a surreal assertion about someone you just spent $175 million to sign.
Though no one expects his surreal stats from Japan last season — 24-0, 1.27 ERA –Tanaka’s pay grade soars above third starter. Forget ideals and platitudes about subtle adjustments to America. The Yankees need Tanaka to win now, and at least 15 more times in 2014 if they are to compete in the nuclear AL East, which happens to house the defending champions, the Boston Red Sox.
Boston was supposed to be in mutating stages of repair and rebuild last year, yet they smoked the sport on their way to a third World Series title since 2004. The Yankees missed the playoffs in ’08 before winning it all in ’09. Baseball history is littered with champions who didn’t even dot the radar in spring training.
But for the Yankees to challenge for a playoff spot, they need to be hearty and remain healthy; not so easy considering vital cogs like Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury are either returning from serious injuries or have a long history of them.
With the Mets we often debate whether the five boroughs will tolerate a total reconstruction. The Mets give their fans no choice but to gripe and wait and wilt. But the swaths of empty seats on Opening Day suggest you aren’t willing to spend on a team with no real shot to win the Wild Card, much less the World Series.
But the ceiling of expectation is much higher for the Yankees. When your wallet is that wide, when you have the sprawling history of victory, when you operate under the Steinbrenner masthead, you are expected to be excellent. To their credit, King George’s brood doesn’t brood over last season or lost seasons. It takes your money and funnels it back into the franchise.
Thus we have Tanaka, an expensive variable on a team with too many of them. It’s Joe Girardi’s job to squeeze 90 to 95 wins out of this bunch, even if Vegas has them winning 87, and if the talking heads have them in third place this year.
We belch the pitching bromides, but that doesn’t make them less true. The Bronx Bombers can’t bomb their way to a pennant. They need Pineda back from the dead, Sabathia more than serviceable, Kuroda to ditch Father Time for one more year and David Robertson to realize that while he can’t replace Mariano Rivera, he doesn’t have to.
They need pitching performances like the one Tanaka gave them Friday night. He’s won 29 consecutive decisions, even if 28 don’t count here. They need far more, even from the Far East.
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