By Phil Rogers, Phillies.com
Domonic Brown didn’t know Masahiro Tanaka was going to follow CC Sabathia andHiroki Kuroda to the mound on Saturday until he got to George Steinbrenner Field. It’s fair to say pitcher-palooza changed his outlook for the afternoon in a hurry.
“I’m ready to go,” Brown said, his eyes lighting up.
This was after the game, and the Phillies didn’t seem to mind that the contest had turned into a command performance for the Yankees’ starting rotation. The little boy in all of them was happy to be a part of Major League Baseball’s marquee event of the day.
It’s a safe bet that members of the visiting team were talking about the Yankees taking the plastic wrap off their $155 million import on the 23-mile drive from Clearwater to Tampa.
“There was a little extra buzz, for sure,” Phillies third baseman Cody Asche said. “As much as you try to ignore all the external things going on, everybody knew he was going to pitch. Everybody was kind of looking at the lineup to see if they were in there, then looking to see if they were going to hit against him. Everybody wanted to face him.”
No, this was not just another Spring Training game. It was an event that packed Steinbrenner Field with 10,934 spectators and merited live television on two continents.
The only one who did not seem to be sweating bullets was the 25-year-old right-hander wearing No. 19 for the Yankees.
First baseman Darin Ruf was the first hitter to face Tanaka, who replaced Kuroda to start the fifth inning. Ruf knew the pitcher had to have adrenaline flowing but received no visual confirmation.
“He looked calm, didn’t look like he was [stressed],” Ruf said. “If I didn’t know it was his first time pitching over here, I’d think it was any other at-bat. He was out there to do a job, and he got it done.”
Tanaka did acknowledge after the Yankees’ 4-0 victory that he was “nervous, but it was a really good nervous.” It didn’t stop him from matching the two scoreless innings that had been thrown by both Sabathia and Kuroda.
He faced eight batters, allowed two singles and no runner beyond first base. He had three strikeouts, but it was the absence of any walks that made him happiest.
When those eight hitters broke down the performance, it was clear they had three takeaways, and none had to do with his velocity. Tanaka hit 94 mph — more than enough to get a batter’s attention — but the talk was about the late movement on his pitches, the devastating splitter and his command.
“He’s going to be a tough pitcher,” Ben Revere said. “I guarantee that.”
Ruf got the first look at Tanaka. He swung through a fastball, then a slider to find himself with an 0-2 count. The next pitch was another fastball, and Ruf lined into left center for a leadoff single.
How big of a moment was it for him?
“Put it right up there with getting called up [to the Major Leagues],” Ruf said, laughing. “Just kidding. It was a good experience. It was a big league at-bat in Spring Training. With all the hype coming in, knowing the whole world was watching him face his first hitter, it was exciting.”
Rupp acknowledged he was badly fooled when he tried unsuccessfully to check his swing on the first pitch he saw from Tanaka.
“I have absolutely no idea what the first pitch he threw me was,” he said.
Well, then, what did it do?
“I don’t even know,” he said. “I was swinging, and my head was in left field. I never even saw it. I thought it was someplace, and it wound up somewhere else. I thought he was going to come after me with the heater. I geared up for it and realized too late it wasn’t.”
Catcher Francisco Cervelli reportedly called seven different pitches for Tanaka, including a surprisingly limited supply of split-fingered fastballs. Tanaka said he threw only three of them, and it’s probably OK with Brown if he never throws another.
Brown looked to be swinging at vapors when he chased a splitter in the sixth inning.
“I recognized the split, but it seemed like it was going to be a strike, and the bottom fell out of it,” he said. “He’s the type of pitcher you have to be patient, but he’s got some good movement.”
After digging a hole against the splitter, Brown struck out trying to catch up to an 87-mph cutter that was letter-high.
“It’s tough to lay off of, especially if you got two strikes; I think he knew I’d seen everything,” Brown said. “If he had thrown that pitch down a little, I might have gotten to it. But it was up, and with two strikes I’ve got to swing.”
It was a little after 4 a.m. on Sunday in Tokyo when Tanaka took the mound for his first game action since saving the clinching game of the Japan Series for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He told reporters that his family in Japan probably was not watching live because of the early hour, but Rupp figured the timing was good for whoever was still enjoying Saturday night.
“At 4 a.m., I’m sure everybody’s awake,” he said. “Everybody’s still up from last night.”
Those who were might have been cursing Ruf’s single.
“They probably don’t like me because I got a hit off him,” Ruf said. “But he’ll get a lot of people out, I’m sure.”
Eight batters into Tanaka’s North American career, that looks like a safe bet.