NEW YORK – New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka said Monday he is eager to take the mound for his first postseason start as a major leaguer.
Two years after he led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to its only pennant in the Pacific League and followed that with a huge performance in the Japan Series, Tanaka will take center stage in the United States, going against the Houston Astros’ Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel in Tuesday’s American League wild-card game.
“This is different from the regular season,” Tanaka told reporters at Yankee Stadium. “This kind of single-game knockout play is something I haven’t experienced since high school. My opposite number is a quality pitcher. What’s important is that however I can, I want to prevent runs and turn it over to the bullpen with us in the game.
“There is nervousness in Japan, and here, too. It’s no different. But comparing the size of the two nations, and the number of people who will be paying attention to this, this is bigger. That’s the difference.”
Tanaka, who went 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA this season, faced the Astros in Houston in June, when he surrendered six runs in five innings.
“I wasn’t pitching particularly well at that time,” Tanaka said. “Tomorrow I want to pitch, what would be for me, a good game.”
Astros skipper A.J. Hinch said the key in facing Tanaka is for his free-swinging team to be selective at the plate and not let him live outside the strike zone.
“We saw him earlier this year, and obviously we’ve seen a lot of him,” Hinch said. “He’s obviously a very effective pitcher when he can get his split finger in his repertoire, particularly for strikes. And he goes below the zone quite a bit.
“Swing and miss is a part of our deal. We’ve done that before. Expanding the zone … is a strength of his. It’s certainly something we’ve got to pay attention to create some problems. Some elevated pitches can play into our power, but he’s a real challenge because of that fastball-split combination.”
The Yankees have twice had trouble with Keuchel and with his team struggling to score at the end of the season, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the lefty poses problems. Echoing what Hinch said about Tanaka, Girardi said plate discipline could be the key against a pitcher working on three-days rest.
“He (Keuchel) is really good,” Girardi said. “That’s the bottom line. He presents a challenge for us. He’s pitched very well against us and we’ve got to play the game tomorrow. He’s a guy who gets the ball down in the zone and you have to make him get the ball up. He’s good at what he does. You can’t chase on him. You try to get his pitch count up, maybe get some long at-bats on him. He’s one day short on rest and maybe that will make a difference.”
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