By Bob Klapisch
NEW YORK – None other than Pedro Martinez says it’s time to panic about Masahiro Tanaka and, judging by his latest disaster in a 5-4 loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday, it’s hard to disagree. What started as a slump has now mushroomed into a full-blown emergency for the Yankees. In fact, Tanaka would’ve been out of the rotation by now, except for his huge contract and the fact there’s no one to replace him.
Chance Adams? It’s probably too soon for the hotshot prospect who was promoted to Class AAA only three weeks ago. Adam Warren could fill in, or the Yankees could stretch out Chad Green or Bryan Mitchell. The Yankees are in a predicament all the way around, but it begins and ends with Tanaka. He’s throwing splitters in the dirt and sliders that are just helicoptering to the plate.
This is no longer just a problem with his delivery, either. After allowing five runs in five innings, including three more home runs, Tanaka admitted, “I’ve been pressing too much.” The YES cameras caught him look skyward and mouthing “wow” after Andrew Benintendi blasted one into the right field seats in the fifth inning.
It was a brief but telling moment of embarrassment for the normally stoic pitcher. For Tanaka to admit he’s struggling with his composure tells you how seriously the Yankees should regard the crash. Joe Girardi sounds supportive – “you don’t just forget how to pitch” – but don’t kid yourself about the wide berth. They know holding off the Sox will be impossible until (or unless) Tanaka is fixed and reclaims his role as the rotation’s strong man.
Actually, Tanaka isn’t the only veteran in trouble. Chase Headley, who batted only .165 in May, has been even worse in June, down to .157 after being held hitless on Tuesday. The crowd booed him after every failed at-bat, especially after grounding into an inning-ending double play in the fourth inning. If Tanaka is trying to out-run Adams’ inevitable promotion from the minors, then Headley is fighting the same losing war with Gleyber Torres, who is busy tearing up the International League, too.
Hank Steinbrenner was quoted this week saying the organization is in full go-for-it mode in 2017. This is no longer an equity-building summer for the future. The Yankees are still in first place with a realistic vision of the playoffs. So how much longer do they let Headley and Tanaka stand in the way?
Fair question for both, although it’s clear Tanaka can draw from a deeper reservoir of good will with Girardi. When the manager went out of his way to say, “This guy has been our ace for the last three years,” it means don’t expect to see a coup any time soon. Fair enough. The Yankees prefer to fix Tanaka instead of replace him. Only, how?
They’ve spent a month looking for the fatal flaw in Tanaka’s delivery and are as stumped today as they were when the slump began. He’s allowed 14 home runs in his last 36 innings – a fall so steep you almost have to believe the Japanese star is injured.
But here’s where Girardi refuses to yield. “There’s nothing that leads us to believe (Tanaka) is hurt,” he said. That checklist includes velocity (stable), arm angle (unchanged) and spin rate on his breaking pitch (within career norms).
So why would Martinez deliver such a devastating assessment on Twitter on Monday? He wrote, “I think (it) is time to panic about Tanaka. His stuff is not there; that Eastern Division is really tough; I don’t see him getting any better.”
You could dismiss this as hyperbole, except that Pedro is a Hall of Famer who understands the craft better than most. And, the quality of Tanaka’s pitches against Boston were so poor, he turned Martinez’s words into a prophecy.
Indeed, it was remarkable how little movement Tanaka generated with his slider, which used to be sharp enough to dot the outside corner against right-handed hitter. At times on Tuesday, Tanaka’s slider had the exact opposite effect – they backed up. After allowing back to back HRs in the fourth inning to Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez, Tanaka tried to bury a slider in on Benintendi’s hands in the fifth. A good slider would’ve accomplished that, but not the one that was crushed tor right field. That was a helicopter, not a slider.
That’s when Tanaka appeared to go into shock. Wow, he said, looking skyward, out of answers.
“I can’t give up on myself,” he told reporters afterward. “I have to believe in myself that I’ll get over this.”
Honest as those words were, Tanaka’s vulnerability nevertheless comes as a shock to the Yankees, who’ve counted on him as their big-game pitcher since 2014. With Tanaka in retreat, the Bombers have no real ace who can match up with Chris Sale.
That’s why Tuesday’s matchup was so important to them. In any other setting, Tanaka against the underachieving Drew Pomeranz would’ve been a slam-dunk for the Yankees. This would’ve been the one win they could count on in a series they were lucky to not see Sale. But not lately, not now.
Tanaka has become the weakest link in the rotation, unable to keep the ball in the park against the lineup with the American League’s fewest home runs. If that isn’t a code red alert, then what is?