Yankees’ Tanaka fans career-best 15, beats Blue Jays
NEW YORK — Masahiro Tanaka was consistently dominant in a strong ending to an otherwise uneven regular season.
Now the New York Yankees are hoping to see this version of Tanaka if they get a chance to play beyond the wild-card game on Tuesday.
Tanaka struck out a career-high 15 hitters in seven dominant innings as New York blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 4-0 Friday afternoon.
Before New York began its final regular season series, manager Joe Girardi said Tanaka was not auditioning for a postseason start. After Girardi’s comments, Tanaka delivered the best start of his four-year tenure with the Yankees, who momentarily stayed alive for at least a few more hours in the AL East race.
The Yankees, who will at the least host the Minnesota Twins in the wild-card game, are 2 1/2 games out, but a win by Boston over Houston on Friday night ends the divisional race.
Tanaka joined Washington’s Stephen Strasburg as the second pitcher to notch 15 strikeouts in an outing this season. While Strasburg is 14-4 with a 2.63 ERA entering his start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tanaka finished the year with a 13-12 mark and a 4.74 ERA — his highest ERA in any of his 11 professional seasons in Japan and the majors.
“It’s pretty obvious that there were a lot of ups and downs this season,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “I really want to take this year as sort of a learning process. Hopefully in the future when I look back, I can look back at this year as a year with a lot of struggles but I could learn from.”
A week after allowing three homers in an 8-1 loss at Toronto, Tanaka rebounded nicely by recording his 12th career double-digit strikeout game and fifth this season. Three of those games occurred after he allowed at least four earned runs in his previous outing.
“I saw good command,” Yankees catcher Austin Romine said. “I saw a lights-out splitter. When you’ve got that going on, it kind of simplifies the game up.”
The right-hander retired the first 14 hitters on 65 pitches, allowing singles to Ezequiel Carrera and Ryan Goins and a double to Josh Donaldson. He constantly used his splitter to surpass his previous career best of 14 strikeouts set July 28 against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Tanaka faced two above the minimum and threw 68 of 103 pitches for strikes. It was the seventh time a New York starting pitcher struck out at least 15 and first instance Michael Pineda fanned 16 against the Baltimore Orioles on May 10, 2015.
“His fastball had more life to it,” New York manager Joe Girardi said. “His split was as good as I’ve seen it this year, and his slider was pretty good, as well. “It gives you a lot of confidence in him.”
Tanaka worked quickly and started the game by striking out the side in the first and getting 10 of the first 14 outs via strikeout.
Tanaka lost his perfect game bid when Carerra singled to second baseman Starlin Castro. Castro dove to stop the ball from reaching the outfield and quickly made the play, but his throw was off-balance and slightly late.
Carrera stole second but Tanaka picked him off to end the inning. He gave up a bloop single to Goins but struck out the next two hitters.
Tanaka allowed his third hit when Donaldson lined a double just past third baseman Todd Frazier’s glove. He tied his career high by striking out Jose Bautista for a second time and set it by fanning Michael Saunders and walked off the mound to a nice ovation from the crowd.
“He’s always tough on us,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons, whose team tied a record with 18 strikeouts in a nine-inning game. “Last we saw him in Toronto, we had the big home runs to win that game. He was as good as he could be today. He was sticking that fastball good and you can’t pick up that split. It comes in at the same height, boom it just drops. So yeah, he was really good.”
Dellin Betances put the first two hitters on in the ninth and Aroldis Chapman struck out two for his 21st save.
The Yankees scored two in the first on Castro’s infield single and Greg Bird’s sacrifice fly. New York added their next two runs on RBI singles by Aaron Judge and Bird in the fifth and sixth, respectively.
Toronto’s Joe Biagini (3-13) allowed three runs on six hits in five innings after getting an early mound visit from Gibbons telling him to pitch quicker.
NOTES: RF Aaron Judge appeared to injure his knee after landing on the first base bag awkwardly after grounding out in the third inning, but Yankees manager Joe Girardi said it turned out to be “nothing.” New York RHP Adam Warren was activated from the disabled list after missing 21 games with lower back spasms but did not pitch. ... Toronto OF Kevin Pillar returned home to be with his wife, who is expected to give birth shortly. ... ... The Yankees tied a season high with four stolen bases. New York also stole four bases Sept. 18 against the Minnesota Twins. ... Toronto’s other nine-inning games with at least 18 strikeouts were Aug. 28, 2011 against Tampa Bay and July 25, 1989 at Texas in a game where Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan struck out 14 in six innings.