You wouldn't be wrong to call last night the worst of Masahiro Tanaka's 4 outings thus far. He was uneven with his command at times, he gave up a few 2-out hits, and he gave up back-to-back solo home runs in the bottom of the 4th on 2 badly missed fastballs. You would be wrong, however, if you called last night's outing a bad one. Despite the inconsistencies and homers, Tanaka was efficient with his pitch count and worked into the 8th, allowing only those 2 runs, striking out 7 while walking nobody, and picking up his 3rd win of the year.
The Red Sox got their first look at Tanaka and they had to walk away impressed. He showcased all his pitches again, mixing them up at all different times in the count, he threw a lot of early strikes to work from ahead or even in the count and keep the guessing game going on their end, and he registered double digit swinging strikes again with an even dozen. Tanaka was very, very good again, and I thought he showed what makes him special and legitimate and also what things he still has to learn about facing MLB hitters in his first 4 encounters with Boston's 2 best hitters.
In the bottom of the 1st, David Ortiz came up with 1 out and a runner on 2nd. Tanaka started him off with a 1st-pitch splitter that Ortiz took for a called strike 1, then doubled up on it to get a swinging strike 2. Way ahead in the count, he threw 2 straight sliders that Ortiz fouled off and then a 94 MPH 4-seamer for ball 1. With the count still in his favor and having just thrown a fastball, Tanaka was giving the impression that he was working Ortiz in reverse. He started him off with the offspeed, went harder offspeed, then threw the heater. Ortiz was probably thinking fastball again and instead Tanaka went back to the splitter for another swing and miss and strike 3.
Mike Napoli came up next and Tanaka completely changed his routine. He started Napoli off with 2 straight 95 MPH 4-seamers, 1 for a called strike 1 and 1 for a ball. He threw a 1-1 slider for a called strike 2 then went back to the fastball and Napoli fouled it off. He had seen the fastball 3 times, enough to time it up as an experienced Major League hitter, and he had just got a look at the slider. With his bat sped up, Tanaka unleashed another splitter that Napoli was way out in front of and sat him down with a swinging strike 3. It was masterful work.
Ortiz and Napoli came up again with 1 out and nobody on in the bottom of the 4th with the team trailing by 4. They needed to get a rally going and they'd already gotten a good look at what Tanaka had to offer. He tried to change things up on them again in their second PAs, but this time I think he may have over-(or under) thought it. This time he couldn't throw strike 1 to Ortiz with his fastball and he missed with 2 straight 1-1 sliders to make it 3-1, an obvious hitter's count. Tanaka tried to break out the sinker here and it cost him. Ortiz was looking for it, Tanaka didn't get it down in the zone enough, and Ortiz crushed it for a solo HR:
Tanaka tried to go back to that sinker well with Napoli next on a 1-1 pitch and this time the pitch was even worse. Belt-high, right over the heart of the plate, and it went bye-bye:
From my memory, those are the only 2 real mistake pitches Tanaka made last night. Because he didn't throw strike 1 to either guy in their second AB, he got stuck in hitter-friendly counts, counts where good Major League hitters are sitting on fastballs. He obliged and threw them fastballs, even though he wasn't intending them to cross the plate where they did, and Ortiz and Napoli did what good power hitters do when they're looking for fastballs.
Tanaka could probably get away with throwing pitches like that in 1-1 and 3-1 counts in Japan because a lot of those hitters aren't going to make you pay by jacking one out. That's an adjustment he still needs to make against better and more powerful hitting competition. On the other hand, the way he worked Ortiz and Napoli in their first ABs was brilliant. It was textbook thinking man's pitching and Tanaka executed it flawlessly with top shelf stuff. I'm sure a hefty amount of credit goes to McCann for calling the pitches too, but he and Tanaka have to have a game plan for how they want to attack hitters and that plan was near perfect in the 1st inning.
When he's out-thinking opposing hitters like that and locating his pitches down, Tanaka is incredibly hard to hit and that fact has been evidenced time and time again through his first 4 starts. The homers show he still has some things to learn at this level. The strikeouts and how he went about getting them show that he's the real deal and there should be no more debate on that topic.
(Tanaka photo courtesy of the AP. HR screenshots courtesy of NESN/MLB.com)