Home / Sports / Yankees 6, Rays 1: Masahiro Tanaka, Flirting With Perfection, Leads Yankees to Victory

Yankees 6, Rays 1: Masahiro Tanaka, Flirting With Perfection, Leads Yankees to Victory

In the midst of a rather imperfect season, Masahiro Tanaka briefly flirted with perfection on Friday at Yankee Stadium.

He mowed down the first 17 batters he faced, nine of them on strikeouts, leaving them flailing at his trademark split-finger fastball that was dropping like a brick in a bathtub.

It was not until there were two outs in the sixth inning, with the stadium engulfed in ever-increasing anticipation, that the Tampa Bay Rays managed to get a hit, a grounder off the bat of Adeiny Hechavarria that barely scooted past the glove of shortstop Didi Gregorius.

The crowd audibly exhaled and saluted Tanaka with an ovation. Tanaka, who had struck out seven of the first nine batters, went right back to work, striking out Mallex Smith to end the inning, and the Yankees cruised to a 6-1 victory.

“Hopefully, I was able to entertain them,” said Tanaka, who was booed off the field on May 14 after having allowed eight runs in one and two-thirds innings to the Houston Astros.

The win was the Yankees’ fifth straight, and with the Boston Red Sox having lost on Friday, it vaulted them back to sole possession of the American League East lead for the first time since June 21.

“I think the most important thing is we’re playing well again,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “We went through a really rough stretch, but we seem to have straightened things out.”

So, for at least one night, had Tanaka.

Facing a team that had knocked him out early in two starts this season, and against whom he had a whopping 20.65 E.R.A. this year, Tanaka was perfect for five and two-thirds innings.

By the end of the fifth, the Yankees had opened a 5-0 lead with a homer from each of their three outfielders, and the only question remaining was whether Tanaka would join Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone in Yankees history by throwing the 22nd perfect game of baseball’s modern era.

Not only was Tanaka’s stuff sharp enough to make it feasible, but the Rays’ history made it seem almost likely. They have been the victims of a perfect game three times, more than any other team in baseball history, despite having come into existence only in 1998. They were on the wrong end of the last perfect game thrown in the major leagues, by Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 15, 2012.

Tanaka looked as if he might follow suit, as he struck out nine and got 14 swings and misses, something he has not done with regularity this season. The only threat of a hit was a line drive by Brad Miller that Brett Gardner ran down in left-center field.

The Yankees had jumped out to a lead after a leadoff homer from Gardner — who had hit the game-winning homer in the 11th the previous night — and a solo shot from Aaron Judge in the fourth.

Then, in the fifth, Clint Frazier — who is making it nearly impossible for General Manager Brian Cashman to keep his vow to send him back to the minor leagues when Aaron Hicks returns from the disabled list — broke the game open with a three-run homer measured at 455 feet.

“I almost over ran first because I was watching it too long,” Frazier said.

Hechavarria’s single ended Tanaka’s bid for perfection, and a solo home run by Lucas Duda, acquired by the Rays on Thursday in a trade with the Mets, ended his bid for a shutout. But nothing was going to derail Tanaka from his best start of the season; he finished with a career-high 14 strikeouts, walked none and allowed only two hits over eight innings.

It was a stunning performance for a pitcher who has struggled mightily this season, having entered the game with a 7-9 record, a 5.37 E.R.A. and 26 home runs allowed, the second most in baseball.

“That’s what you expect out of your ace,” Judge said of Friday’s performance.

Although Tanaka has had some good outings this season — he pitched a three-hit shutout against the Red Sox in Boston on April 27 and struck out 13 against the Oakland Athletics on May 26 — he had a dispiriting start six days ago, when he allowed four runs and two home runs in a 6-5 loss to the Mariners in Seattle.

“There was some inconsistency in those first two and a half months, and we were doing everything we could to figure it out,” Girardi said. “But it seems he’s on the right track, and we just got to keep him there.”

Tanaka looked like the pitcher the Yankees had thought they were getting when they signed him to a seven-year, $ 155 million contract in January 2014. Tanaka pitched like an ace for the first half of his rookie season — he was 12-3 with a 2.27 E.R.A. by July 3 — but he sustained a partial ligament tear in his pitching elbow in his next start and has been inconsistent ever since.

This season, that inconsistency morphed into ineffectiveness, and his status as the ace of the Yankees’ pitching staff was usurped by Luis Severino, who was anointed as such by Manager Joe Girardi on Wednesday.

But for at least one night, Masahiro Tanaka was the pitcher the Yankees had always hoped he would be. Outstanding, even if not quite perfect.

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