The competition to start the AL Wild Card game is heating up and Friday night Masahiro Tanaka delivered another outstanding performance. Tanaka has been great since his return from injury and right now the Yankees have to consider him the favorite to get the ball on October 3rd.
With the Red Sox 8.5 games ahead of the Yankees in the division, we can pretty much assume that the Bronx will be hosting the Wild Card game for the second year in a row. That is if the Yankees secure home field over the A’s who they are currently only 4 games ahead of in the loss column following Oakland’s series win over the Yanks earlier this week.
During that series, Luis Severino took another step back in his quest to earn his second straight wild-card start while J.A. Happ emerged as another solid option to give the ball too. The veteran Happ will earn strong consideration over these next three weeks to get the nod, but the early leader in the clubhouse has to be Masahiro Tanaka.
As I said earlier Tanaka has been on a roll ever since he returned from the two hamstring strains back in early July. The four weeks Tanaka missed have turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he’s looked stronger and much sharper than he did earlier in the season. In nine second-half starts Tanaka has gone 4-3 with a 2.30 ERA and 61 K’s in 58.2 innings. Friday night he was nasty going 8 shutout innings with 10 K’s, 3 hits and zero walks.
He’s given the Yankees at least six innings in seven of the nine starts as he’s starting to pitch like the ace he was during last year’s postseason. It was last October when Tanaka emerged as the Yankees most reliable postseason starter with a 2-1 record and a 0.90 ERA in 20 playoff innings. Outside of Justin Verlander, there wasn’t a better postseason pitcher than Tanaka last October and this year he should be the guy the Yankees hand the ball to with their season on the line.
A lot can change between now and the end of the September but right now Tanaka gives the Yankees the best chance to win that one game. Happ was excellent against the A’s on Tuesday and wouldn’t be a bad option at all to get the start, but if Tanaka can continue on this current roll from here on out he is the only option.
With Sevy’s struggles continuing he, unfortunately, can’t be trusted in a winner take all game and right now Tanaka is the Yankees starter with the most upside. When he’s at his best there aren’t many pitchers in baseball better than him and when you factor in his postseason experience he makes the most sense to get the start.
People might forget that Tanaka has started a wild-card game before, back in 2015 when the Yankees lost to the Astros 3-0. Tanaka was ok over 5 innings only giving up two runs. That’s something the Yankees would probably sign up for this time around. That night Tanaka wasn’t very sharp and still managed to deliver a start that kept his team in the game but the futile Yankees offense back then gave him no support.
This year I can say with some certainty that this Yankees offense won’t get shutout especially if they’re playing at home against an A’s starter such as Mike Fiers or Edwin Jackson. The A’s offense is elite and their bullpen is great as well, but I’ll take my chances with Tanaka and this Yankees lineup anytime they have the home field advantage.
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The only worry with Tanaka is his propensity for giving up home runs (23 this season) but over his last 23 innings he hasn’t given up any. That’s huge for Tanaka because if he keeps the ball in the yard it usually means you’re going to get a pretty solid outing from him.
One of the main reasons I like Tanaka in that wild card game is his ability to bear down and focus when the pressure is at its peak. As we saw last season he doesn’t give in during the playoffs and doesn’t make many mistakes because he is so focused on executing every single pitch with conviction.
He’s a guy who embraces the challenge and loves pitching in the big moments and you know that when he’s on he’s going to keep his team in the game. He’s not going to walk anyone and he has the potential to dominate any lineup in baseball.
Again, we’ll have to wait and see how the rest of this month plays out but if the Wild Card game was next week Aaron Boone would be crazy to pick anyone other than Tanaka to take the mound. When you combine the way he’s pitching right now with the way he pitched last postseason it has to make him the clear front-runner.
Unless he really falters between now and the end of the regular season he’s the guy Yankees fans should expect to see on the stadium mound come October 3rd.