TORONTO – Masahiro Tanaka knew the English words he needed to answer a question about the last time he’d been this anxious before a big game.
“Japan Series,” Tanaka said, referring to last season’s championship in which he saved the clinching seventh game.
Nerves were an issue for Tanaka in the early innings of his major league debut for the New York Yankees, but the right-hander soon settled into his new surroundings.
Tanaka pitched seven innings, Jacoby Ellsbury had three hits, and the Yankees beat the Toronto Blue Jays 7-3 on Friday night.
“He did a really good job of controlling his emotions and finding himself after the first couple of innings,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Tanaka. “He was able to fix his mistakes early on and that’s the sign of a mature pitcher.”
Staked to a 2-0 lead before taking the mound, Tanaka (1-0) got a startling welcome to the major leagues when he surrendered a home run to Toronto’s Melky Cabrera on his third pitch. It was Cabrera’s first homer of the season and the second leadoff shot of his career.
“It was my mistake and I thought that Cabrera took a really good swing at it,” Tanaka said through a translator.
Tanaka settled down to retire the next three batters, catching Jose Bautista looking at a curveball and getting Edwin Encarnacion to miss on a slider.
“I was missing some spots earlier in the game but as the game progressed, I think I was getting better,” Tanaka said.
New York reclaimed the lead and chased Blue Jays starter Dustin McGowan (0-1) with a two-run third that was aided by an overturned call. McGowan thought he’d escaped a jam when Ichiro Suzuki was called out on an infield chopper, but Girardi argued and the call was changed after replay review. Yangervis Solarte followed with a two-run double.
Tanaka looked comfortable the rest of the way, facing just one batter over the minimum in his final five innings. Encarnacion hit a one-out double in the third but was left stranded. He reached again on an infield single off Solarte’s glove to begin the sixth but was erased on a double play.
Tanaka allowed three runs, two earned, and six hits, walked none and struck out eight. He threw 97 pitches, 65 strikes, and earned his 100th professional victory.
“He’s definitely the real deal,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said.
The 25-year-old signed a seven-year, $155 million deal with New York after going 24-0 last season with the Pacific League’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Despite new surroundings, it was just like old times for Tanaka, who won his 29th consecutive regular season game with his last loss dating back to Aug. 19, 2012 against the Seibu Lions.
He got a helping hand from Ichiro, who went 3-for-5 and scored a pair of runs.
The Yankees’ bullpen came into play from the eighth, with Matt Thornton retiring both batters he faced. Dellin Betances then walked two, including the leadoff man in the ninth, in one-third of an inning.
Closer David Robertson retired all three batters he faced to seal the win for Tanaka.
Ellsbury, New York’s other high-priced offseason addition, stole two bases and scored twice as the Yankees won their second straight following an 0-2 start. He doubled and scored in the first, singled in the second, doubled and scored in the fourth and walked in the sixth.
Ellsbury, who came in hitless in his first three games with the Yankees, also made a sliding catch to retire Dioner Navarro for the final out of the sixth.
“He did everything tonight,” Girardi said. “He hit, stole bases, made a great catch in center field. That’s why we went and got him, because that’s what he capable of doing. He’s a game-changer.”
Solarte doubled twice and had three RBIs.
“That kid had a nice game today,” Gibbons said. “I don’t know where he came from but he’s a pretty good little player.”
Mark Teixeira left in the second inning after he strained his right hamstring while trying to field a foul grounder.