So much of sports comes down to whose hand do you want the ball in with the game on the line.
Which two-minute quarterback? Which isolation star as the 24-second and game clocks are winding toward 00:00? Which pitcher in October?
Masahiro Tanaka has moved into Orlando Hernandez territory for the Yankees. Sure, just fine from April to September. But give them the ball in October and the quality rises with the pressure. Think of all the words you would want to be associated with this time of year? Is there one bigger than “trust?”
The Yankees trust Tanaka. Implicitly. Unflinchingly. Annually.
Come the postseason, the worst that will occur with Tanaka starting is the Yankees will have a shot to win when he leaves the game. And often it will be better than that. Hernandez was like that, so was Andy Pettitte, especially in his 10-start second term in pinstripes. Thus, Tanaka is in great company, the kind that elevates you around here, where the final judgment is always about legends of the fall.
For all the worry about the Yankees’ starting pitching, James Paxton was fine for 14 outs in Friday’s opener and Tanaka was better than that for 15 outs Saturday.
Maybe this is about the Twins, who can’t win this time of year, especially against the Yankees. But Minnesota did outhomer the Yankees and nearly scored as many runs this season, but Tanaka held them to three singles and one run over five innings in an 8-2 triumph.
Tanaka has made six career postseason starts. He has never pitched fewer than five innings, never allowed more than two runs. His playoff ERA is 1.54. His postseason batting average against is .164 — the lowest of any pitcher who has made at least six starts.
Riding his slider early, Tanaka escaped a first-and-second, one-out spot in the first by inducing Eddie Rosario to hit into a 3-6-1 double play, flashing his strong defense by completing the Twin-killing at first. That initiated a period in which retired seven straight with four strikeouts and no balls leaving the infield, protecting a 1-0 lead.
At that point, the Yankees turned Twins starter Randy Dobnak, a rookie suddenly famous for having a 4.99 Uber rating, into a guy with an 18.00 postseason ERA.
The Yankees layered one strong at-bat atop of another in the third, highlighted by Didi Gregorius launching a grand slam off Tyler Duffey as the Yankees opened an 8-0 lead.
The Yankees sent 12 men to the plate, leaving Tanaka inactive for an extended stretch. He issued his only walk with one out in the fourth followed by consecutive singles from Rosario and Mitch Garver to produce a run. The Twins hit a record 307 homers this season and three more in losing Game 1. This was Minnesota’s instant chance to surge back into the game. Aaron Boone knew it. Chad Green was warming up.
But Tanaka struck out Luis Arraez and Miguel Sano to quash any uprising, then went 1-2-3 in the fifth and was done with an 83-pitch, seven-strikeout effort. Tanaka has now pitched 40 ²/₃ career innings versus the Twins without surrendering a homer while improving to 6-0 in six starts.
This plays into the overall mastery the Yankees have enjoyed against the Twins and Minnesota’s continued misery at this time of year. The Twins lost their 15th straight postseason game, the longest active skid in any of the four major pro sports leagues and the second longest ever behind the 16 straight the NHL’s Blackhawks lost from 1975-79.
The Yankees will try to make it a sour 16 for the Twins on Monday after taking a two-games-to-none lead in this Division Series. Game 2 was played on the 15th anniversary of the Twins’ last playoff win, the opener of the 2004 Division Series against the Yankees behind Johan Santana. The Yanks have beaten the Twins 12 in a row in the postseason since.
This was Tanaka’s first opportunity to feast on the Yanks’ October punching bag. Once again he did. Once again the Yankees couldn’t have been happier to do this:
Put the ball in his hands at this time of year.
Where Tanaka ranks all-time among pitchers with at least six postseason starts:
Lowest ERA (since ER became official in 1912)
Sandy Koufax 0.95
Masahiro Tanaka 1.54
George Earnshaw 1.58
Scott McGregor 1.63
Carl Hubbell 1.79
Waite Hoyt 1.83
Lowest batting average allowed
Masahiro Tanaka .164
Tim Lincecum .172
George Earnshaw .174
Sandy Koufax .180
Eddie Plank .186
Art Nehf .187
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