Tanaka time: Righty embraces anticipated debut
Japanese star to pitch in relief vs. Phillies, turning spring game into global event
TAMPA, Fla. -- When Masahiro Tanaka tried on his Yankees pinstripes earlier this month, he said that there was no particular team or player that he was looking forward to facing. They'd all be new, and so each assignment would be a terrific challenge.
Tanaka is preparing for the first of those tests. The right-hander is scheduled to make his highly anticipated spring debut on Saturday against the Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field (1:05 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV), entering in relief to begin the fifth inning.
"I understand there's going to be a lot of attention on the results, the numbers of what I do out there," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "But for me, I'm not looking at it at all. I just want to go out there and pitch my style out there and see how it is on the mound."
Other than the preparations for Derek Jeter's final season, Tanaka's arrival has easily been the biggest storyline of camp. A sizable contingent of reporters from Japan has been assigned to track Tanaka's every movement, beaming reports of his progress across the globe.
The 25-year-old Tanaka has been a major star in Japan since his high school career, and perhaps that is one large reason that he has seemed to be unfazed by the attention that comes with signing a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees.
"At this point, I can't really think of anything that I'm having some difficulty to adjusting to," Tanaka said.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi hopes that continues to be the case on Saturday. Tanaka will wait on the sidelines as CC Sabathia makes the start against Philadelphia, and then will begin preparing while Hiroki Kuroda enters as a third-inning reliever.
"Hopefully, [Tanaka] keeps his emotions in check, and that's what you worry about a little bit, trying to do too much," Girardi said. "Players a lot of times want to validate contracts. I always say, [with] Japanese-born players, I think there's a certain amount of pride. They feel they're pitching for their whole country sometimes, and that can be a bit much."
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild set up the club's rotation schedule, lumping Sabathia, Kuroda and Tanaka for the first game before separating them later this spring -- sometimes with days off, and sometimes by having them work in simulated or Minor League games.
Girardi said that Rothschild's decision had nothing to do with lowering expectations for Tanaka, or allowing him to fly under the radar for his first time out.
"No, no, no -- he's not flying under anything," Girardi said. "The idea behind this, for Larry, is to be able to work in some extra days off in Spring Training, getting him on his five-day schedule. And we weren't going to ask CC to come out of the 'pen."
While Girardi has not yet locked in his rotation for the regular season, he revealed on Friday that it is "pretty safe to say" that Tanaka's first start is lining up for the third or fourth game of the year -- either April 3 in Houston or April 4 in Toronto.
"I want to see how it goes," Girardi said. "I think it's just fair to see how he's doing physically at the end of this, because that's one of the biggest adjustments he has to make."
From what the Yankees have already seen from Tanaka's work in the bullpen and live batting-practice sessions, the early reports of a special repertoire have appeared to be accurate.
Earlier in camp, Yankees catcher Austin Romine grabbed a bat against Tanaka and was wowed by the hurler's splitter, which some scouts have rated as one of the best in the world.
When the pitch hurtled in like a fastball and then dropped off the table in front of home plate, Romine said that he turned around to catcher Brian McCann, asking what he had just seen.
"He's got a great split," McCann said. "It really falls off the table. His motion's completely the same as his fastball, and that's the key to getting swings and misses."
Tanaka throws two fastballs -- a two-seamer and a four-seamer -- as well as a slider, curveball, changeup and cutter. He plans to show most of them off on Saturday, but said that he is looking forward to seeing what other professional hitters think of his splitter.
"I feel that it is important to get some swing and misses from that pitch, but going into tomorrow I just want to see how batters react to that pitch," he said.
Off the field, Tanaka has also seemed to slide into his new surroundings well. He and Kuroda have been speaking with some regularity, and Kuroda has seemed to be impressed by Tanaka's poise.
"What I've learned as a person, for his age, he's a really mature guy," Kuroda said through an interpreter. "He's really calm. He's a great guy."
Even with a language barrier -- he worked on learning English in Japan, but uses a translator to communicate with the American media -- Tanaka has flashed signs of an engaging personality, and his teammates seem to have embraced him.
"I wasn't really surprised, because I knew pretty much what I was getting into," Tanaka said. "I had some of the information coming in here, so I wasn't very surprised by anything. But there might be some going into games from here on."