Confident Tanaka could stabilize Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka's good spring has the Yankees feeling better about the starting rotation. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka fell behind in the count to Justin Upton in the first inning Sunday, two balls and no strikes, and a lot of pitchers in this situation would see their options limited.

But in the moments that followed, Tanaka demonstrated what separates him from almost every other pitcher in the world, and why the Yankees made him one of the highest-paid pitchers in the world. He can throw strikes with any of his high-end pitches at just about any time, and slowly, he dug himself out of the ball-strike deficit.

Tanaka had thrown sliders away with his first and second pitches, and on the third pitch, he threw a good fastball to the outer part of the strike zone -- at a relatively average 90 mph. But Upton, having seen breaking balls on the first two pitches, seemed surprised by it, and was just a tad late in swinging through the fastball. Two balls and one strike.

The count went to 3-1, and then Tanaka threw a slider for a strike; it was a bit of a hanger, but Upton fouled it off. The count was full.

Put yourself in Upton’s mind in this moment. Upton had seen sliders and fastballs, but had not yet seen Tanaka’s split-fingered fastball, which is regarded as his best and nastiest pitch, a tremendous finishing weapon on two-strike counts. Upton had seen Tanaka throw the splitter to the guy who batted right before him, Freddie Freeman, and based on Freeman’s late and uncertain swing-and-miss, it was evident he had not seen the ball well.

A reasonable guess for Upton, then, would’ve been that Tanaka would throw him something off-speed. The splitter, perhaps, or a slider on the outside corner.

Instead, catcher Brian McCann called for a two-seam fastball inside, and Tanaka agreed. Eighty-seven miles per hour, belt high, inside corner.

Upton froze, and took Strike 3. The 87 mph fastball must’ve looked like 97 mph, after all the off-speed pitches that he had seen Tanaka throw for strikes.

There has been a lot of debate in the industry through the winter about whether Tanaka will have enough fastball to be a frontline pitcher, but after seeing Tanaka pitch in person for the first time