SENDAI – For awhile it was a joke even to ask the question.
Did Ma-kun win?
Usually, he did. But not this time.
For the first time in a while, Masahiro Tanaka lost.
That’s a phrase that hadn’t been written this year. Not during the “baseball” year, nor even the last calendar year.
Tanaka finally tasted defeat in Game 6 of the Japan Series, his last start of the season, and likely his last in Japan, as many expecting him to make the move to MLB this offseason.
“Looking at Ma-kun’s absolutely great performances this year, I have no doubt that he can be successful in the States,” said a female Eagles fan in front of Kleenex Stadium before the game.
When the dust settles, and the shock waves die down, the sum of Tanaka’s season as a whole will resonate more than the “1″ that will forever linger in the 2013 loss column like an ink blot on a white cloth.
Tanaka was valiant even in defeat, throwing 160 pitches, and keeping his team within striking distance until the bitter end.
“He pitched for as long as he could,” said Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino. “He finally got a loss at the very end. But I really appreciate him.”
The crowd chanted Tanaka’s name before the ninth on Saturday, and the scene was set for the Hoshino to pull him after two outs and let the crowd shower him with the appreciation of the last seven years.
But for better or worse, Tanaka, like Hoshino during his own playing days for the Chunichi Dragons, is a bulldog, a fighter, the ace.
The writing was on the wall with the way Giants starter Tomoyuki Sugano and the Yomiuri bullpen was pitching, the Eagles had two runs and three hits through eight innings, but with the score 4-2 it was still a game, and Tanaka was going to finish it.
“I thought to take him out,” Hoshino said. “But I think it was his pride as our ace. He said he wanted to go back out, so I said, ‘Go.’
“He didn’t have to push himself too hard, though,” Hoshino said. “But I think that he was thinking it would probably be his last time to perform in front of these fans. He is amazing.”
Tanaka last lost on Aug. 19, 2012 against the Seibu Lions. He bounced back in his next start with 10 shutout innings in a 1-0 victory to begin his streak of 30 consecutive winning decisions, including complete-game victories in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage and the Game 2 of the Japan Series.
No pitcher pitches as long as Tanaka did without taking a loss. So many things had to fall the right way, and the amazing right-hander had to pitch at a high level while they did.
Tanaka winning had been almost as automatic as clockwork for the past year. If the Rakuten Eagles played, and Tanaka was on the mound and got a decision, he won.
He won, and won, and won. Tanaka won so much that Twitter user Clément Delestrade set up an account called “Did Ma-kun win?”
“I created it because I like that comical gimmick, which works very well on Twitter, and because Tanaka never looked like he was ever going to lose,” Delestrade said in an message to The Japan Times. “Even without knowing Japanese, people interested in him could see his legacy being written thanks to those simple tweets.”
Did Ma-kun win?
Of course he did.
He won close games and he won blowouts. He got the decision in games that started out tight and ended in routs, and games that began as routs and got too close for comfort.
Did Ma-kun win?
Tanaka didn’t do it alone of course. His teammates lifted him in games he probably shouldn’t have won. They carried him on the days and nights when he didn’t have his best stuff, a point Tanaka has always been among the first to make this year.
He was the benefactor of some timely hitting and a wealth of run support throughout his streak, but the right-hander’s other numbers are a tour de force of pitching dominance.
During his 30-decision (postseason included) win streak, Tanaka posted a 1.08 ERA over 292 innings. In that span of 37 starts, he allowed more than two earned runs a grand total of two times.
All that came to an end on Saturday, and with it, likely his career in Japan.
If it was the end for Tanaka, he ended it with a flourish, cranking his fastball up to 152 kph to strike out Yoshinobu Takahashi to end the top of the ninth, with his team down by two runs.
“I was wondering what I could do to get the stadium fired up,” Tanaka said. “I pitched as if this was my last time in front of these fans.”
There’s still one more game left in the year, and following Sunday’s Game 7, all eyes will focus on whether or not Tanaka will be posted, and ultimately where he’ll end up.
Those are answers that will come on another day in the near future.
Saturday night, as the grounds crew swept the field and made preparations for a game not many, no matter where their rooting interests were, thought would be played, there was only one question that could be answered.
One so many fans had asked in joy, laughing as they feigned ignorance. The one whose answer now is weighted down by the type crushing reality that can ruin a fairy tale.
Did Ma-kun win?
No. No, he didn’t.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.