By Sweeny Murti
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HOUSTON (WFAN) — We are starting to see the best of Masahiro Tanaka, and the Yankees need that to continue on Friday night in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.
It hasn’t been like this all year, though. By most statistical measures this has been the worst season of Tanaka’s entire professional career, including his years in Japan. His 4.74 ERA, his 1.239 WHIP, the 35 home runs allowed … all of it in his opt-out year.
But sprinkled throughout this less-than-stellar season have been some of the most dominating performances of his entire career:
— Three-hitter at Boston, April 27
— 13 strikeouts, no walks vs. Oakland, May 26
— Eight scoreless innings, three hits, nine strikeouts vs. Texas, June 23
— 14 strikeouts, no walks vs. Tampa Bay, July 28
— Seven scoreless innings, three hits, 15 strikeouts, no walks vs. Toronto, Sept. 29
— Seven scoreless innings, three hits vs. Cleveland, Game 3 ALDS
And there were also a number of bad starts, none of which stands out more than the following:
— 1 2/3 innings, eight runs, four home runs vs. Houston, May 14
The cheers hadn’t even subsided yet from Derek Jeter’s number retirement ceremony just minutes before George Springer and Josh Reddick hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning. And then Alex Bregman hit a grand slam, Springer belted another homer, and Carlos Beltran added a RBI double, and Tanaka’s night was done.
The one thing we’ve seen from Tanaka this year, however, has been moments when he has shined brilliantly. And they’ve come with the spotlight squarely on his back.
That game at Fenway Park in April? Matched against Chris Sale. The one against Texas in June? Squaring off against countryman Yu Darvish. Game 3 against Cleveland? Pitching to keep his team alive down 0-2 in a best of five.
The Yankess could have gone with Sonny Gray to start Game 1, but given that he hasn’t pitched in two weeks, the Yankees didn’t want to push him into such an important moment. Instead, Gray threw a simulated game in Houston on Thursday evening to prepare for a Game 4 start at home.
Luis Severino, who tossed 113 pitches in his brilliant Game 4 effort against the Indians, will start Game 2 on normal four days’ rest, and CC Sabathia will take the ball in Game 3 in New York.
Tanaka’s start has even more weight on it now. If he can eat-up innings, the Yankees will have a rested and deep relief corps to back up Severino with an off day to follow. It will take a major effort to hold down the Astros, the highest-scoring team in the league this year. And they are coming off pretty much demolishing the Red Sox in four games in the Division Series.
It all starts with Tanaka. There has been something about his ability to ratchet up his intensity in key games this season, even though it has been the most forgettable of his career.
In his fourth year as a Yankee, Tanaka will finally be pitching in a best-of-seven series. And he can start them on the road to the World Series if he comes up aces.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN