NEW YORK — Sunday was supposed to be the day two of Japan’s best pitching talents squared off at Yankee Stadium in a matchup that would have had people back home — and in the States — buzzing.
But thanks to the Los Angeles Angels’ desire to better negotiate the “workload management” of their multiposition rookie superstar Shohei Ohtani, that didn’t happen.
Even still, Masahiro Tanaka, Ohtani’s countryman and the New York Yankees’ veteran starting pitcher, wasn’t complaining. He doubts many others are now, either. Although he and Ohtani may not have participated in the anticipated pitchers’ duel, they did see one another in an arguably more exciting way.
“Him getting in the batter’s box and facing him as a batter … might have been the real matchup,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “It might have been a good thing for the fans.”
Indeed, the 46,109 who saw Ohtani and Tanaka go toe-to-toe Sunday, as well as those in Japan who stayed awake into the wee hours of the morning to watch, were treated to a set of battles that ultimately went in Tanaka’s favor.
The 23-year-old Ohtani went 0-for-2 in a 3-1 Yankees win, striking out twice to the pitcher who is six years his elder. It was reminiscent of the only other times the two had faced each other as batter and pitcher. In 2013, when both played as professionals in Japan, Ohtani went 0-for-11 with six strikeouts and a walk against Tanaka.
The Ohtani test wasn’t the only one Tanaka passed Sunday. A day after Angels All-Star Mike Trout notched the first five-hit game of his career, Tanaka held Trout in check, striking him out twice.
“From the beginning, we wanted to be aggressive and attack the hitters,” Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez said through an interpreter.
That meant Tanaka was tasked with establishing his fastball as early as the first inning, and making sure he kept the similarly powerful and speedy Trout and Ohtani off the basepaths and off balance at the plate.
“We needed an outing from him like that,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He did a good job, he and Gary, of kind of mixing pitches to keep them from being predictable to the other side, and that worked to his advantage.”
Tanaka’s only blemish was a sixth-inning solo home run hit by Andrelton Simmons. In some ways it was par for the course for Tanaka, though. The right-hander has given up at least one homer in all but two of his 11 starts this season.
Still, Tanaka called the home run he allowed to Simmons “unacceptable.”
When it came to Ohtani, Yankees pitchers handled him well all weekend. The phenom went 0-for-9 with five strikeouts and four walks in his first trip to the Bronx. He did put a couple of hard-hit balls into play during the three-game series, but he hit them right at Yankees defenders who had been shifted into the perfect spots.
Boone credited his pitchers with mostly avoiding the danger zones that have allowed Ohtani to have six home runs in the 30 games in which he has been a hitter.
“Overall, we did a good job of staying away from his slug zone. You know, that middle-down area where he’s really dangerous,” Boone said. “We challenged him a little bit with fastballs up in the strike zone and off-speed pitches down. He does a good job of controlling the zone as well.”
Much like Friday’s eighth-inning at-bat between Ohtani and Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, there was an added electricity in the air when the left-handed hitter and the left-handed pitcher met in the ninth inning Sunday. With the Angels down two runs, Ohtani led off the inning by drawing a six-pitch, full-count walk on a tough 101-mph fastball down and away.
“His at-bat against Chapman there in the ninth, where he’s able to stay off a borderline pitch down, not a lot of hitters, especially lefty-on-lefty like that, have that capability, and he showed that,” Boone said.
The walk proved meaningless as Chapman came back and struck out the next two batters before getting a game-ending ground out to secure his 11th save of the season.
The Angels have a tough go on the mound, walking in the first two runs, but Masahiro Tanaka shines with 8 Ks in 6 innings of work in a 3-1 win.
While Ohtani may not have hurt the Yankees this weekend, Trout did. In Saturday’s Angels win, he went 5-for-5, posting the first five-hit game of his career. Four of the five hits went for extra bases, as Trout doubled three times and homered.
As a result of what Trout did the night before, Tanaka was fully focused on not letting him have an impact Sunday.
“I was watching the game [Saturday] night, and I witnessed the type of damage he put on,” Tanaka said. “So he is a key batter in that lineup, and we can’t let him beat us. So the thing is, you do have to be careful, but at the same time, you really have to be aggressive, and I feel like I was able to do that.”
He certainly did. As he concluded a 10-pitch first-inning battle with Trout, Tanaka hummed a 94-mph fastball at the top of the strike zone to set down the Angels outfielder swinging. That at-bat set the tone for a day that saw Tanaka work off his fastball, and use his splitter and slider effectively late in the count.
“There were some times where it felt like [the Angels] were looking splitter or off-speed, and the fastball surprised them a little bit,” Boone said.
Four of Tanaka’s eight strikeouts ended via the splitter, and three of those splitter-ending strikeouts came against Trout and Ohtani. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Tanaka entered the weekend with the third-most strikeouts on at-bats that ended on splitters, and the Angels entered the weekend with the league’s worst strikeout percentage on splitters.
The tests don’t get any easier for the Yankees. Beginning Monday, they host the defending World Series champion Houston Astros after winning a three-game road set from them earlier this month.
“We look forward to that challenge. We look forward to playing in those kind of games,” Boone said.