It was Masahiro Tanaka’s first glimpse of Fenway and the Red Sox’ first glimpse of him.
The Red Sox probably hope they don’t have to see him too often.
The Red Sox are dealing with a New York Yankee ace, folks. Every year for the next seven years, they will have to hope to dodge Tanaka because he’s the real deal and there’s no getting around it.
He outpitched Jon Lester Tuesday night with his impressive assortment of pitches in a 9-3 win to improve to 3-0 with a 2.15 ERA in his first four major league starts. The Red Sox managed seven hits and two runs against him. He struck out seven and walked none.
Tanaka made a few mistakes, but his stuff is undeniable.
It makes you wonder why the Red Sox weren’t more serious about acquiring the 25-year-old righty. At the time, the thought was the Red Sox had won the World Series, they have good pitching prospects, and there was no urgency for the outlay of tens of millions of dollars.
But there are no guarantees those prospects will be as good as Tanaka, who went 24-0 last season for Rakuten Golden Eagles. The Red Sox put up the $20 million posting fee, but then fell far short of the Yankees, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Mets in their final offer.
Was it because of Boston’s foray with Daisuke Matsuzaka back in 2007? Matsuzaka did win 33 games his first two seasons with Boston, but fizzled out quickly during that six-year contract.
Tanaka’s rapid acclimation to the major leagues was what stuck out most to Red Sox manager John Farrell, who helped break Matsuzaka into the major leagues and often noted how difficult it was, from a cultural and pitching point of view. But the highly touted Tanaka hasn’t had those issues. He’s as good as advertised.
In his first foray into the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, which he said he used to watch while in Japan, he had a few down moments. For one, he met David Ortiz. Never a good thing for a new, young pitcher.
Tanaka had struck out Ortiz on a splitter in the first inning, but he made the mistake of trying to sneak a 93-mile-per-hour fastball by him on a 3-and-1 count in the fourth. Ortiz drilled it into the right-field bleachers, and stood and watched it.
“I dont think much about it,” said Tanaka, through an interpreter, when asked about Ortiz’s admiring glance. “Obviously you don’t see that much from Japanese players, but you do from some American players who come play in Japan.”
Mike Napoli made it back-to-back homers with a shot into the Monster seats.
“I obviously missed my spots,’’ Tanaka said. “Maybe I could have gone with a different pitch with both batters. I’m sure I’ll see the batters again in the future, I’ll try to get outs next time.’’
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the most impressive thing Tanaka did was bounce back strong from the two homers.
“It’s basically how I think to myself,’’ Tanaka said. “I try to tell myself I gave up those runs and no more and just go at it.’’
But really, Tanaka had no reason to fret in this one. He went into that inning with a 4-0 lead. His teammates had a good time against Jon Lester, and Boston’s porous defense produced five unearned runs. And in the top of the fifth, the Yankees added four runs to give Tanaka more breathing room.
Tanaka had thrown a two-hit shutout over the Cubs in his previous outing, striking out 10. He has struck out 35 batters in his first four starts, with but two walks.
For the most part, the split-fingered pitch (he throws two of them) is absolutely devastating. Maybe with more familiarity by hitters that will change, but right now it’s just a tough pitch to pick up because he serves it nice and juicy and then, whoops, where did it go? The action on it, as a few Red Sox hitters could attest Tuesday night, was severe.
Both Ortiz and Napoli struck out on it in the first inning after Grady Sizemore and Dustin Pedroia hit the ball hard against him. Sizemore’s drive to left-center was collected by Jacoby Ellsbury, and Pedroia doubled to the left-field corner on a fastball.
Tanaka is a man of many pitches, but he was throwing his fastball at 95 m.p.h., his two-seamer at 92-93, his split-fingered pitch at 88, slider at 86, and curveball at 75. He also has pinpoint control.
Farrell said Tanaka never allowed his hitters to get into their normal see-a-lot-of-pitches mode.
“To his credit, he throws a lot of strikes. He never gave in,'’ Farrell said. “His split is one that presents itself to the strike zone and forces guys to commit with late action. You’re going to get swings and misses. The overall walks issue speaks to his strike-zone ability.’’
After the shaky fourth, Tanaka recorded a 1-2-3 fifth with two ground balls and a fly out. In the sixth, he mowed down Pedroia (fly to right) and Ortiz (grounder to shortstop) before Napoli got him again with a double to left-center, only to whiff Jonny Gomes for the final out.
Tanaka allowed a two-out hit to Brock Holt in the seventh, but no harm there either.
Unless Tanaka breaks down, he’s not only going to be the major contender for Rookie of the Year, but also the Cy Young Award. There’s a long way to go before all of that, but he’s certainly heading in that direction.
It’s easy to follow Tanaka’s path of success, from high school, where he broke Matsuzaka’s strikeout record (458 to 423), to the major fight for him in the 2006 Japanese amateur draft.
A similar bidding war occurred for him as he was posted this offseason.
The Diamondbacks were especially upset about losing out on him because they had devoted so many scouting resources toward him.
Other teams had him pegged as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Only time will tell, but, as of now, Tanaka is the Yankees’ ace. Couple him with Michael Pineda and the Yankees seem to have a nice, young 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation for some time to come.
Two things Tanaka came away with Tuesday night: You never try to sneak anything past Ortiz, and yes, you’re so good that you’ve become the newest Yankee enemy of the Red Sox.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.