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Rakuten ace Tanaka turning heads

Kyodo

Although Masahiro Tanaka didn’t get to showcase his wares in the World Baseball Classic final, interest from major league clubs should be intense if he is posted this autumn by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Tanaka would have started in this year’s WBC final, had Japan not been bounced in the semis. But that hasn’t stopped a flock of scouts from shadowing him this season. Scouts from at least seven big league teams were on hand last week at Tokyo Dome when Tanaka posted his 12th win in 15 starts this season without a loss. The 24-year-old right-hander has won his last 19 decisions and has a string of 22 consecutive quality starts since his last loss on Aug. 19.

“He is a warrior,” one scout said Saturday of the Eagles’ ace. “He knows how to pitch and he hates to lose.”

In his most recent start, Tanaka shut out the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on four hits despite having nothing close to his best stuff.

Andruw Jones, a five-time major league All-Star with 17 seasons and 434 home runs in the bigs, is playing in Japan this season for the Eagles and has liked what he’s seen of Tanaka.

“He’s a great pitcher. He’s got all the tools. He’s got the heart, he’s got the will,” Jones said.

“He knows when a guy is going to swing at a pitch, and he throws it out of the zone. Greg Maddux did that. You’d look for a pitch and it would be in the dirt. I’m glad I don’t have to face him (Tanaka).”

Former New York Yankees pitcher Darrel Rasner has been Tanaka’s teammate since 2009 and said he simply enjoys the sight of Tanaka doing his thing.

“He’s got everything,” Rasner said. “He’ll get (guys to) swing at (pitches in) the dirt, he’ll change timing on the guy, he’ll go quick, he’ll go slow. He’ll throw a slow curveball. He’ll throw a hard curveball. It’s fun. It’s like playing Nintendo. It’s fun watching. The guy’s special.”

This season, when the fat has really been in the fire, Tanaka has had the ability to get out of trouble, holding batters hitless in 12 at-bats with the bases loaded. That’s gone a long way toward helping him put together his current streak of 40 consecutive scoreless innings.

“He’s kind of his own thing,” Rasner said. “He can be a power pitcher or he can be a finesse guy and control the ball. You don’t see many guys who have control who have the extra gear. If he gets in trouble, he can dial it up another notch and be a power pitcher. Not many pitchers are like that in the States. He’s got ‘A’ stuff, so he’s going to be an ace in the States.”

Although Tanaka signed a three-year contract in December, the team said it would be willing to discuss how Tanaka could play in the majors as early as next year if he so desires.

When Tanaka does make the jump, Jones believes a determining factor in his success will be how eager is to make changes.

“A lot is going to depend on his willingness to make adjustments,” Jones said. “The guys who go over from here and succeed every year make adjustments every year.”