After strong April, Masahiro Tanaka still hopes to improve on a "so-so" start

Despite an impressive first month, Tanaka still thinks he can improve for New York
05/02/2014 6:15 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Masahiro Tanaka pitches in a recent game for the Yankees.(AP)
Masahiro Tanaka is not satisfied with the way he has pitched so far in his rookie season, calling his pitching performance overall "so-so" on Friday.

Strong words, especially since he finished April 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA, 0.925 WHIP, and 11.6 K/9 ratio in five starts -- numbers better or pretty comparable to his 1.27 ERA, and 0.943 WHIP and 7.8 K/9 ratio in Japan last season - but he may indeed be his harshest critic.

Manager Joe Girardi, however, may be at the other end of the spectrum.

"I think that he expects an awful lot from himself, and I think that's what really pushes him to be great," Girardi said of Tanaka on Friday. "He kind of set a high standard for himself last year, and I don't know if he's comparing it to that, but I think he's done pretty good. I think he's adjusted well and I think he's pitched very good games for us."

Tanaka's sixth start of the season comes Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays, and he's not feeling any added pressure from the flux in the Yankees' rotation, or the thought that teams may adjust to him better as they see more film.

Really, he's most worried about keeping down his walks - an "issue" that's only an issue, theoretically, because he allowed four of them in his last start, tripling his season total from two to six.

"I've worked on some stuff. I can't tell you what," he joked through interpreter Shingo Horie Friday, "but I can say that I'm just going to try to go out there and not walk as many guys as I did last outing."

Tanaka says a lot of things have bothered him about his pitching, foremost among them the fact that he has had a tendency to give up runs early in the game. If one could find a "problem" this season, maybe it's that, as David Freese's solo home run in the sixth inning of last Sunday's game is the only one of the nine earned runs Tanaka has allowed that has come after the fourth inning.

And yet, here he is, undefeated and eighth in the American League in ERA as of Friday, stats that tell you all you need to know about Tanaka's makeup - at least according to his manager.

"I think the biggest thing we've learned is that he's going to find a way to get it done no matter what is his stuff is or what he goes through," Girardi said. "He's going to find a way to stick around and give you a chance to win, and I think (that comes from) being aware of what you have that day, and being aware that you might have to make a change and having the ability to make a change."

That, Tanaka said in a way that's perhaps wise beyond his years, comes from experience.

"Since turning pro, I've pitched more than 1,000 innings from day one until now," he said, "and I feel that I'm able to adjust myself way better in games now as compared to my first or second year."

Tampa Bay is the last AL East team to get a look at Tanaka live this season, but it surely won't be their last - though as time goes on, Tanaka isn't worried about overexposure having to make adjustments as teams get more and more looks at him, either live or on film.

"That's something that I don't worry about at all. Back in Japan, there were only five teams that I faced," he said, "so basically, you're facing the same guys over and over again. You have to adjust often according to how they adjust to you, so right now, in my head, I'm not worried."

There's already talk that with the flux in the Yankees' rotation, he may already be the "ace" of the staff, but he doesn't believe any of that talk just yet. Sure, he always wore No. 18 in Japan - a number that, along with 11, is usually reserved for the best pitchers on the team - but he passed that off by saying "I felt it meant the team had high hopes for me."

And, even though he does have the best numbers of anyone on the Yankees' staff through April, he doesn't care if he's No. 1 or No. 5, as long as he's on the left side of the win-loss ledger.

"It's something people around me are saying, but I don't look at it that way at all," he said. "For me, it's kind of hard to understand what the concept of an ace is, but the word is being used a lot in Japan, and I think that's it's something you gain from gaining the respect of your teammates."

He's gaining that quickly, and as of yet, he hasn't cracked under the weight that is knowing the Yankees and their fans have high hopes for him too - because like his skipper, he's never worried about anything but the current day.

"All I'm trying to do is go out there, game-by-game, and beat the opponent and bring victory to my team."

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