ANAHEIM, Calif. — Now what?
What’s supposed to occupy the Yankees’ concerns, their fans’ angst, now that Masahiro Tanaka offered proof of life?
Yeah, yeah — third base, first base and starting rotation depth. There’s always something. But man, oh man. At this next milepost of the season, with the amateur draft under way, could this 2017 Yankees season realistically be going any better?
Tanaka, granted an extra day of rest by the Yankees in an attempt to cure what ailed him, looked much, much better Monday night. And just as it looked like this seemed fated to be one of those “good news, bad news” nights for this team, with Tyler Clippard giving up Tanaka’s lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, Aaron Judge smacked home run No. 22 in the eighth to give the Yankees their sixth straight win, 5-3 over the Angels in front of a heavily pro-Yankees fan contingent at Angel Stadium.
“I felt like I did a better job of everything,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “I had good concentration on the mound. I felt like I was able to execute all of my pitches well.”
“That was encouraging,” Joe Girardi said. “We have to build off this to make sure he can put them back to back to back, in a sense.”
In the wake of two terrible outings, the first at the Orioles and the second against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, Tanaka put up a quality start, allowing three runs (one earned) and four hits in 6 ²/₃ innings while walking two and striking out eight. His much-lamented splitter and slider — their absences blamed for the woeful 6.55 ERA he brought into this assignment — returned with a vengeance, although he still allowed a fair amount hard contact, including Kole Calhoun’s first-inning home run off a fastball. Up next come the A’s Saturday at the Oakland Coliseum, and you might recall the last time Tanaka faced the American League’s 13th-best offense, May 26 in The Bronx, he struck out 13.
“I actually thought his stuff might have been a little better today [than that start],” Girardi said. “I thought his slider and split were a little better today.”
If you’ve been following this Yankees campaign, you know every time they teeter at the edge, their strong start on the verge of turning back into a pumpkin, they discover another engine. They have shrugged off extended injuries to Didi Gregorius (who contributed four singles and two RBIs Monday), Gary Sanchez, Aroldis Chapman and Jacoby Ellsbury; ineffectiveness from Tanaka, Chris Carter and Chase Headley; and both ineffectiveness from and an injury to Greg Bird. Yet here they stand, owners of the American League’s second-best record (38-23) behind the Astros (44-21) and seemingly getting stronger.
As the end of the draft typically marks the point when clubs pivot to scrutinizing their major league roster and targeting trade needs, the Yankees might possess more interesting options internally — the rehabilitating Bird for first base, Gleyber Torres at third base and Chance Adams in the starting rotation — than any of the options from other clubs.
The natural fear is the rotation depth won’t last — that CC Sabathia will hit another speed bump like the one he encountered in late April and early May or that he’ll break down physically; or that someone (or multiple someones) from the trio of Jordan Montgomery, Michael Pineda and Luis Severino will hit a wall.
Hence the continuing importance of Tanaka. If he can climb back to his personal heights, then he can provide the Yankees coverage against mushrooming elsewhere. Just as his rotation mates have covered him, and Judge, Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks have for Ellsbury, and Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes did for Sanchez and Gregorius earlier.
Another pinstriped crisis has calmed. Tanaka’s personal history and this Yankees team’s history offer reason for optimism. Nevertheless, if they defy such histories, you’ll be ready. What fun is following a team without worries?