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MLB chatter sure to increase as Tanaka dominates in NPB

by Jason Coskrey

It was Friday morning in Japan when Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer earned his 17th win of the MLB season.

As the visiting Tigers were wrapping up a 10-3 road drubbing of the Cleveland Indians, Masahiro Tanaka was an ocean away in Sendai, perhaps preparing for his game against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks later that night — which he won for his 16th victory of the year.

Scherzer is currently 17-1 for the Tigers and was the American League starter in the MLB All-Star Game. Tanaka is 16-0 for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, setting the record for most consecutive wins since Opening Day on Friday, and was the Game 1 starter in the NPB All-Star Series.

Looking past wins, which don’t paint a full picture, Scherzer has a 2.84 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and a 2.69 fielding independent pitching (FIP) in 158⅓ MLB innings, while Tanaka has a 1.20 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 2.41 FIP in 150 innings on NPB.

The two pitchers are having their sensational seasons worlds apart from one another, but it’s very possible they could be contemporaries in the near future.

For Tanaka, MLB is uncharted territory, an unexplored frontier of the wild, wild west where either fame or failure await.

The more he dominates in Japan, the louder the questions about the major leagues become. Can he pitch in the States? Can he handle the schedule? How will his stuff translate? And, of course, is he the next Yu Darvish?

Even without answers to those questions, if the posting system survives in some form, suitors will line up for Tanaka’s services, as the right-hander is widely expected to make the jump to the majors this winter. At least four, including the New York Yankees, reportedly had scouts in attendance for Tanaka’s start Friday night.

He can pitch, that much is for certain. Tanaka throws his fastball in the 90s — though he could stand to get more movement on it — and also features an above-average slider, a great split-fingered fastball, and enough command to compete on the MLB level.

His arsenal and an impressive NPB track record — Tanaka is in his seventh year and is 91-35 with a 2.34 ERA for Rakuten — make him an attractive target for MLB teams, with many scouts projecting him as a No. 2 in the majors.

It also doesn’t hurt that a group of Japanese pitchers is currently thriving in the U.S., with the Texas Rangers’ Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners making the All-Star team, Hiroki Kuroda pitching like the Yankees’ ace, and closer Koji Uehara and fellow reliever Junichi Tazawa playing at a high level for the Boston Red Sox.

For many, MLB presents the ultimate challenge, and to be honest, ‘Ma-kun’ is running out of things to prove in Japan.

He was the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2007 and has been named to the All-Star team six times. He emerged from the considerable shadow of former Rakuten ace Iwakuma in 2011 and outpitched Darvish to earn the Sawamura Award, and could very well be on his way to adding a second award.

Tanaka is undefeated this year and 20-0 with a 1.02 ERA in 211 innings since his last loss, on Aug. 19, 2012. He’ll set a new record for consecutive wins with a victory in his next start, which may come Friday against the Seibu Lions.

About the only things left to win are a Japan Series title, a pennant and a PL MVP award, things very much in play this year as Tanaka’s Eagles are 6½ games clear at the top of the Pa. League standings.

For now, Tanaka still has a lot of work left to do for Rakuten.

If he keeps winning, he may help carry his team to the NPB summit for the first time, and all the hard work and effort will have paid off on some glorious night this fall.

Even so, there will be another challenge on the horizon to the west. One whose siren call has proven to be hard to ignore.