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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Tanaka eclipses other Yankees in debut

TAMPA — Derek who?

It was all about The Show on Saturday at George M. Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees and Phillies and even New York’s illustrious captain, playing his second spring game, were merely part of the scenery.

So were Yankees pitchers CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, despite their spring debuts, two scoreless innings from the slimmed-down Sabathia, followed by two scoreless from Kuroda.

But this game didn’t really begin until the Yankees’ third pitcher reached the mound at 2:13 on a postcard afternoon. It was 4:13 Sunday morning in Japan, but three Japanese national TV networks were beaming this exhibition live back home. The star of the show did not believe his family and friends were among those watching.

“Because they were sleepy,” he said through his interpreter.

Wake up!

It’s Tanaka time.

Masahiro Tanaka, international man of mystery, given a $155 million contract by the Yankees before throwing so much as a single major-league pitch, faced real, live opposition for the first time.

He came in to start the top of the fifth inning. People cheered. Some fans in the sellout crowd stood for the new right arm. They’d never seen him pitch.

Tanaka’s first chore was Philadelphia first baseman Darin Ruf.

Strike 1, swinging.

Rookie of the year. Cy Young.

Strike 2, swinging.

MVP. Hall of Fame.

Line single to left center.

Who is this clown?

It’s a little early to draw conclusions.

Tanaka really did very well, calmly throwing two scoreless innings of his very own, striking out three, one on a demonic split-finger fastball.

“I was nervous, but it was a really good nervous,” Tanaka said.

As much as the Yankees and manager Joe Girardi have tried to protect the 25-year-old Tanaka, promoting him as only the No. 3 starter in the rotation (oh, those $155 million Yankee No. 3s), Tanaka is a hunted man. Hours before he threw Saturday, dozens of Japanese media stood waiting for him to reach the ballpark. As always, they were professional, gracious, accepting. Just as always, they got their man, the money shot, when Tanaka arrived at 11:24 a.m. — 1:24 a.m. in Tokyo.

Breakfast at Steinbrenner.

Tanaka’s fame precedes him, partly because of his insane 2013 season in Japan. He went 24-0 — that’s zero losses — with a 1.27 ERA. He won six times in the postseason. That’s 30-0.

And long before Saturday, we knew this cat knew how to make a nice entrance.

The Beatles arrived in New York 50 years ago. No way you top that. But Tanaka did what he could when he traveled to New York for the first time, paying $195,000 to charter a Boeing 787 Dreamliner (seats 200) to transport just him, his singer wife, three others and the couple’s toy poodle, Haru.

Reggie Jackson, eat your heart out.

Saturday, Tanaka showed seven pitches. Asked to name them, he began counting on his fingers, then briefly broke away from his interpreter wing man.

“Fastball, two-seam, curveball, slider, cutter, split, change-up.”

He ended the fifth inning with a strikeout on a mid-90s fastball. But it was the splitter that produced murmurs. In any language, it’s a widow-maker. To begin the sixth, Tanaka fanned Phillies outfielder Ben Revere on three pitches, finishing him with a split that fell off the planet and made Revere swing and miss in an unspeakable way.

Sabathia could have predicted it. He played catch with Tanaka on Friday, and Tanaka didn’t back down.

“That split is dirty,” Sabathia said.

Saturday beat playing catch, or throwing in the bullpen or throwing live batting practice. This wasn’t smiling for media from two continents. This was getting out there for the first time.

“It’s a place where he’s probably at the most peace,” Girardi said. “He’s not having to answer questions. He’s able to do his work. I think it was important for him to get it under his belt.”

“I’m relieved just to be able to throw against the batters over here,” Tanaka said.

It’s about time.

Tanaka time.

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