For Masahiro Tanaka, playing under the bright lights of the MLB postseason is nothing new.
When Tanaka takes the mound against the Cleveland Indians in their American League wild-card series on Wednesday, he’ll do it with the experience of a 5-3 record and 1.76 ERA in eight career postseason starts behind him.
“I think the most important thing is trying to be yourself and playing your type of game,” Tanaka told reporters during an online news conference on Tuesday.
Tanaka is just one of the stars Japanese fans may have a vested interest in during these MLB playoffs. Of the nine Japanese players who suited up for MLB clubs this season, six remain in the hunt to win a World Series title.
The last Japanese players to compete in the World Series for the eventual champion were Boston Red Sox pitchers Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa in 2013. Since then, Norichika Aoki, Yu Darvish and Kenta Maeda have appeared in the World Series for the losing team.
Of the six Japanese still playing this year, Tanaka, Darvish and Maeda all have playoff experience in MLB — though Darvish and Maeda are pitching for different teams (the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins) this time around.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama and Tampa Bay Rays slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, meanwhile, are first-timers, having reached the playoffs as MLB rookies.
“To be able to have that chance gives me motivation,” Akiyama said during an online news conference Tuesday. “I would probably be taking it slow in Cincinnati if we weren’t in the playoffs, so I’m motivated.”
Shun Yamaguchi’s Toronto Blue Jays also made the postseason, but the pitcher was left off the roster for the AL wild-card round.
Tanaka can help get the Yankees a step closer to their first trip to the Fall Classic since winning the title in 2009 (when Hideki Matsui was named World Series MVP) when he faces the Indians in Game 2 Wednesday. New York leads the series 1-0 and will advance to the AL division series with a win.
Tanaka was 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA in 2020. He’s in the final year of the contract he signed when he joined New York from the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles after the 2013 season, meaning Wednesday’s game, win or lose, could be his last in pinstripes.
“Of course I’m a little nervous and have various things going through my head,” Tanaka said. “But when I get into the game, everything is the same. I just want to throw my pitches and hold down the opposing batters.”
Maeda and Tsutsugo got their 2020 postseason campaigns started on Tuesday.
Maeda was traded to Minnesota from the Los Angeles Dodgers this year and had a resurgent season. The former Hiroshima Carp pitcher was 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA and 0.75 walks plus hits per innings pitched for the Twins. On Aug. 18, he carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Brewers.
Maeda threw five shutout innings against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of their AL wild-card series on Tuesday. He pitched out of a jam in the fourth to keep his team in the game, letting out a yell after striking out Josh Reddick with the bases loaded.
“The strikeout to Reddick, that moment, I really wanted to get a strikeout,” Maeda was quoted as saying by Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com. “That’s a strikeout-must situation. To be able to get that, my emotions overflowed.”
Maeda left with a one-run lead, but the Astros tied the game in the seventh and scored three runs in the ninth for a 4-1 victory.
Tsutsugo hit lead off in his playoff debut and was 0-for-2 in Tampa’s 3-1 win over the Blue Jays. Tsutsugo hit just.197, with eight home runs and 24 RBIs, in his first MLB season.
Darvish, who tied for the MLB lead with eight wins and is a candidate for the National League Cy Young award, is expected to pitch in Game 2 of the Cubs’ NL wild-card series against the Miami Marlins on Thursday.
Akiyama’s Reds will get going against the Braves in the NL on Wednesday in their first playoff appearance since 2013.
“Whether the season was 60 games or 162 games, it’s been a long time for the Reds to be in the postseason and that’s a big deal,” Akiyama said.
Akiyama’s first MLB campaign was a strange one.
He left the Seibu Lions to join the Reds as a free agent over the offseason only to have his first spring training disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The MLB regular season was then pushed back to July 23 and condensed to 60 games.
“As I’ve said each time, I haven’t really experienced a regular season,” Akiyama said. “So I honestly don’t really know how to celebrate overcoming that tough challenge.”
Akiyama hit .245 and drove in nine runs in 54 games as an MLB rookie. He ended the season on a high note after a slow start, hitting .317 with six RBIs, five stolen bases and 15 walks in 23 games in September, and is looking forward to the playoffs.
“I knew I didn’t want to finish off the season the way I started it,” he said. “I had various experiences during the season and was trying to find my own key to success.”
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