Masahiro Tanaka’s Yankees career may have ended in cruelest way possible

Masahiro Tanaka’s Yankees career may have ended in cruelest way possible

10/08/2020

SAN DIEGO — Masahiro Tanaka couldn’t change the subject with his trademark October magic Wednesday night at Petco Park, and in a cruel twist of irony, he simultaneously made himself a bigger subject come the end of the Yankees’ season, which might very well be Thursday.

What a fiasco here. What a sad way this would be for a great Yankees career to end.

I don’t think it will end, actually. Yet his 8-4 loss to the Rays in American League Division Series Game 3, his second straight lousy outing in this postseason — this time without the excuse of insane weather — stains a previous staple of his brand as he approaches free agency.

“It doesn’t cross my mind even right now,” Tanaka said, through an interpreter, of his Yankees tour of duty possibly being complete.

Right now, with the Yankees facing a 2-1 deficit in this best-of-five set and leaning on shaky lefty Jordan Montgomery to bail them out for Thursday’s Game 4, you’re still raging about the Yankees’ Game 2 gambit — starting rookie Deivi Garcia and lifting him after just one inning for veteran J.A. Happ — that backfired spectacularly. You should be. Unless Montgomery and a short-rested Gerrit Cole bail out the Yankees and prevent a downfall to their bitter, low-payroll rivals from Tampa Bay, that failed strategy will go down as an all-time blunder in baseball history.

Throw in some poor bullpen work and insufficient offense Wednesday, and enough blame exists to go every which way. And yes, the home plate umpiring by crew chief Mark Carlson left something to be desired, particularly on pair of borderline third-inning strikes to Luke Voit (he wound up grounding out to strand three teammates) and a fourth-inning ball four to Willy Adames (Tanaka said he thought it was a strike, and Kevin Kiermaier blasted the very next pitch for a tiebreaking, three-run homer). Really don’t want to hear it. Until robot umps take over (that can’t come soon enough), that comes with the job.

In any case, given the turmoil that surrounded their Game 2 defeat, their first of this postseason, the Yankees sure could have used an effort from Tanaka that evoked the last time he started an ALDS Game 3 — in 2017 against the Indians, when he steadied the ship after Joe Girardi’s failure to challenge a wrong call in Game 2 led to a loss. That night, in The Bronx, Tanaka tossed seven brilliant shutout innings for a 1-0 win.

This time, even with the Yankees serving as the home team and Tanaka taking the mound to his usual Japanese pop entrance song, you suspected from the first inning, when Aaron Judge tracked down a Ji-Man Choi blast to right field in the webbing of his glove, at the wall, that it wouldn’t be that sort of night for Tanaka. He wound up allowing a total of five runs and eight hits while recording only 12 outs, four of them strikeouts.

On the heels of last week’s four-inning, six-run stinker in rainy Cleveland (which the Yankees came back to win), Tanaka gave himself a 12.38 ERA in two playoff starts. Yeesh.

“There’s only frustration there,” Tanaka said. “I thought my stuff was better compared to my last outing, and I thought that I was well-prepared going into this game. That makes it even more frustrating. … Just not being able to execute pitches when I really needed to.”

I don’t think the Yankees should write off Tanaka, finishing up his seven-year, $155 million contract, for the future, especially with Happ and James Paxton also free agents. Tanaka clocked a very good 120 ERA+ over 10 starts totaling 48 innings during a regular season in which Tanaka dealt with not only the same COVID hurdles as his teammates but also a concussion he suffered (via a Giancarlo Stanton) on the first day of spring training 2.0 as well as some unspecified personal adversity during the shutdown that prompted him to take his family back to Japan.

A one-year contract at a sizable pay cut from his current annual average value of $22.14 million could make sense. Tanaka has made clear his desire to stay with the Yankees, who in turn will deal with their 2020 revenue gutted and their 2021 revenue in question thanks to the coronavirus.

That’ll become a bigger topic soon enough. Quite possibly very soon thanks to Tanaka’s own, unusual October inadequacies.

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