The last two starts have not been up to Masahiro Tanaka's usual standards, and now we have a hint as to why. The Yankees' ace, who was hit hard in Cleveland on Tuesday night, returned to New York for an MRI on his pitching arm, according to George King III of the New York Post.
Tanaka's last two starts have been, by the standards of his initial 16 games in the majors, shaky. Through June 28, the prized free agent had an ERA of 2.10 in 115⅔ innings, walking just 18 while striking out 127. Opponents had hit .217/.252/.358 against him, and all 16 starts were "quality," meaning he threw at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs. That streak came to an end on July 3, Tanaka allowing four runs on nine hits in seven innings to the Twins while striking out only three. Tuesday night the Indians pounded him for 10 hits and five runs in 6⅔ innings, including two home runs.
Overall, his line for his last two games: 13⅔ innings, 19 hits, nine runs, one walk and eight strikeouts, with opponents hitting .333/.345/.526.
It was easy to shrug this off as a blip -- even the best pitchers sometimes go through dry spells, just as even the best hitters sometimes slump. For all his incredible control, Tanaka has shown a tendency to leave the occasional flat fastball up in the strike zone, a tendency that led Boston's Mike Napoli to shout "What a(n) idiot!" after the pitcher put a 1-2 pitch up and away, a spot where Napoli could drive the ball down Yankee Stadium's short right-field line. The pitch turned a 1-1 tie into a 2-1 loss. Obviously, the appointment with Dr. Magnetic Resonance Imaging suggests Tanaka is not in the realm of slumps and but in jeopardy of something far less transient and potentially longer-lasting.
Given their struggles to coax health and productivity out of their aging offense and maintain a rotation behind Tanaka, the Yankees have hung in the AL East race largely because the division is so unusually soft this year. Four games out of the division lead and 3½ games out of the second AL wild-card spot, their starting rotation ranks 10th in the league in ERA, and that's with Tanaka functioning as the best pitcher on the circuit. It would be presumptuous to say that were they to be without him for any length of time, or were he to operate at a reduced level, their chances this season would not be doomed, but the odds would certainly be against them.
The Yankees acquired veteran starter Brandon McCarthy from the Diamondbacks earlier this week. McCarthy has been an excellent pitcher at times during his career, particularly during his two-year stint with the A's, and there is an argument to be made that he has pitched far better than his 3-10 record and 5.01 ERA would suggest. Barring an unlikely surge, though, he won't be up to the task of replacing Tanaka -- no pitcher would be. Even if he pitches at a high level, that would still leave the Yankees with a declining Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps, underwhelming rookie Chase Whitley, recent rookie spot starter Shane Greene, and the hope that someday that spaceship that carried Michael Pineda off to planet Injury will bring him back home again. CC Sabathia isn't long for this season, it seems.
Any outcome other than a clean bill of health and a return to form would be not only a loss for the Yankees but for baseball. Tanaka had quickly established himself along with Yu Darvish and Jose Abreu as one of the few hyped overseas imports who lived up to his advance billing. He seemed a good bet to start the All-Star Game, where a national audience would get to thrill to his nigh-perfect control and vicious splitter. Now all of that seems in doubt, and the Yankees' season with it.