NEW YORK – Masahiro Tanaka looked better than advertised at Yankee Stadium, showing why the Cubs offered $120 million this winter and still got blown away by the Evil Empire.
If New York’s bright lights and the international media attention won’t bother Tanaka, then this Cubs lineup certainly wasn’t going to scare him on Wednesday afternoon in The Bronx. Tanaka didn’t think he had no-hit stuff in Game 1 of a day/night doubleheader, but it sure looked that way during a 3-0 victory.
On a sunny, 43-degree afternoon with 15 mph winds, Tanaka had the Cubs flailing at pitches in the dirt and freezing up on splitters and sliders. He cruised through eight innings and finished with 10 strikeouts. He lived up to the hype after a 24-0 season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles that sparked a bidding war.
When reporters swarmed his locker in the postgame clubhouse, Tanaka didn’t want to get into what he thought of the Cubs and their rebuilding plan, or why he chose the Yankees, if they gave him the biggest contract or the best chance to win a World Series.
“I came here because the Yankees gave me the highest evaluation,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “The Yankees gave me the highest assessment. So that’s why I came to the New York Yankees.”
Once Tanaka took a seven-year, $155 million megadeal – which didn’t even include the $20 million release fee owed to his Japanese club – the Cubs signed Jason Hammel to be their sign-and-flip guy. Hammel (2-1, 3.05 ERA) again looked sharp – giving up three runs across seven innings – but he was going to be the other pitcher in this matchup.
“I was really impressed,” Hammel said. “His split-finger was devastating. A lot of bad swings today on that – and not good contact either. The hitters will tell you how good you are and today he was pretty good.”
Hammel patiently answered the other Tanaka questions – “Yeah, he’s pretty good” – before finally giving a look that screamed: What else do you want me to say?
If not for Junior Lake’s bunt single in the second inning – which the Cubs needed to be overturned after a manager’s challenge – Twitter would have been buzzing about a possible Tanaka no-hitter.
From that point, Tanaka retired 14 batters in a row, until Anthony Rizzo went against the defensive shift and pushed a bunt up the third-base line for a hit in the seventh inning. Working up and down, in and out, Tanaka kept the Cubs off-balance, allowing only one walk and those two soft hits.
“What makes him tough is he’ll throw any pitch at any time,” outfielder Nate Schierholtz said.
“He’s got a lot of stuff to play with,” outfielder Justin Ruggiano said. “(The splitter’s) good because it doesn’t necessarily do the same thing every time. I saw one that fell out of the zone downward, and then I saw one that kind of went side to side. (He’s) got a lot going on.”
The Cubs didn’t have much going on this winter, except waiting for Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball to iron out a new posting system, hoping for a shot at Tanaka and teasing their fans.
“I knew it was a possibility back at the Cubs Convention,” Schierholtz said. “There was a lot of talk about that. He’s doing well so far. It’s a bit early, I think, to really assume he’s going to be a Cy Young. But he had good stuff today.”
Every time Tanaka pitched at Wrigley Field would have been an event. At age 25, he would have fit perfectly into the franchise’s business/baseball plans. That’s why the Cubs traveled to Southern California in January and made their pitch to Team Tanaka in the living room of a beautiful Beverly Hills home.
“I did consider all the teams that wanted me,” Tanaka said. “I looked at them evenly. I looked at all the teams very seriously.”
Chairman Tom Ricketts, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer took part in the presentation. If Rick Renteria ever daydreamed about Tanaka fronting his rotation for the next six years during that meeting, the new Cubs manager won’t admit it now.
“I don’t know that you can ever assume anything,” Renteria said. “We went to talk to him. It didn’t work out. So we move on.”
Tanaka – who’s 2-0 with a 2.05 ERA and 28 strikeouts and only two walks in 22 innings – wouldn’t say what everyone else must have been thinking.
“I’ll know at the end if the right choice was made to come to the Yankees or not,” he said.