The Yankees’ season was on the line Thursday night, practically if not technically, as they tried to draw even with the Astros in a star-studded American League Championship Series. There’s no other person they’d rather have on the mound than Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka was rather ordinary during the regular season, posting a 4.45 ERA in 31 starts, but to start this October he allowed just one run in two starts, including six scoreless innings against the mighty Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS.
That followed a pattern for Tanaka, who before Thursday allowed six total runs in seven postseason starts, adding to his reputation as a big-game pitcher. However, Houston got him for four runs in Game 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, the first time Tanaka ever allowed more than two runs in a playoff game.
Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees in January 2014 after seven years in the Japanese Pacific League with Rakuten, and has pitched in the playoffs in four of his six major league seasons. In his MLB postseason career, Tanaka has pitched in 47 innings, and 40 have been scoreless.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone praised Tanaka’s ability to put the ball wherever he needs to. His best pitches are his slider, which induced all eight of his swinging strikes in Game 1, and his split-fingered fastball. Those two, along with his four-seamer, have accounted for 89 percent of his offerings the last two seasons, though he throws six pitches in all.
“Masa I think is a guy that is obviously very good at his craft, very meticulous, and understands his mechanics and his delivery about as good as anyone,” Boone told reporters before Game 4. “I think those things lead to him going out there with a lot of confidence.”
Tanaka’s 1.76 postseason ERA is 12th all-time among pitchers with at least 40 innings. It was fifth before Thursday, and his total runs per nine innings was second only to unanimous Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera before taking the loss in Game 4.
Since Tanaka has allowed so few runs in October, let’s rank them all from least to most important.
10) Alex Bregman, 2019 ALCS Game 4
Bregman was the only batter Tanaka faced in the sixth inning, and reached on an error by first baseman D.J. LeMahieu, one of four Yankees errors on the night. Later in the inning, after Tanaka left, Bregman scored on a three-run home run from Carlos Correa off Chad Green. It’s the only unearned run Tanaka has allowed in October, and the only one that scored after he left the game.
9) Mitch Garver’s RBI single, 2019 ALDS Game 2
The Yankees were already up 8-0 on the Twins, in the middle of yet another systematic destruction of Minnesota, so this run mattered very little to the actual outcome. With one out in the fourth inning, Nelson Cruz walked and Eddie Rosario singled him to third base, setting up the Twins’ lone tally against Tanaka. This was a 27-hopper through the vacated left side, a shift single if there ever was one.
8) Xander Bogaerts home run, 2018 ALDS Game 2
New York was up 3-0 in this game when the Red Sox shortstop hit a fly ball into the first row in the center field stands at Fenway Park, the very type of batted ball that has not been a home run this postseason.
Tanaka pitched five innings in the Yankees’ only win of the series.
6 & 7 tied) Astros’ fourth-inning rally, 2017 ALCS Game 1
In the previous battle of the titans between the Yankees and Astros two years ago, Houston broke a scoreless tie with a trio of singles. Jose Altuve started things off with a single, then stole second, and scored on a one-out single by Carlos Correa. A groundout moved Correa into scoring position, and Yuli Gurriel drove him home with another single.
This is the only multi-run inning Tanaka has allowed in the postseason.
5) Carlos Gomez home run, 2015 AL wild card game
If you’ve noticed a pattern here, it’s that five of Tanaka’s first six postseason runs allowed were scored in the fourth inning. This one was a solo shot by Carlos Gomez, putting Houston up 2-0 in a game the Astros won 3-0. Much like Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS, this was a mound battle between Tanaka and Dallas Keuchel.
4) Colby Rasmus home run, 2015 AL wild card game
For the top spot, we had to go with the very first run Tanaka allowed in the playoffs. Like the Gomez home run, this Colby Rasmus home run led off an inning, this time in the second inning — the rare non-fourth inning run allowed by Tanaka in October.
3, 2 & 1) George Springer home run, 2019 ALCS Game 4
It took until Tanaka’s eighth start for him to finally surrender a lead. Up 1-0 in the third inning, Tanaka issued a walk to Robinson Chirinos and gave up a single by Josh Reddick to set the stage for Springer, who launched a three-run shot over the left field wall.
It was the first time Tanaka allowed more than two runs in one postseason game, let along a single inning or swing. Sure, Tanaka took the loss on Thursday, but his overall postseason body of work remains quite strong.