- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
IN THE AFTERMATH, the players remembered how Masahiro Tanaka flinched, ducking as if someone had rifled a ball at his face.
It was early evening in a late-April game at Fenway, and Tanaka had carried a 4-0 lead into the fourth. He'd fallen behind 3 and 1 to David Ortiz and, to keep from walking him, challenged the slugger with a fastball. Pitching 101. Ortiz anticipated the fastball -- Hitting 101 -- and destroyed the pitch, a massive, fully leveraged hack. That was when Tanaka ducked his chin into his shoulder, as if the contact unnerved him. Then he watched as the ball soared high above, landing in a spot in center where Ortiz had never before driven it, some 482 feet away. As Ortiz's teammate Jonny Gomes later said, "I bet nobody has ever hit a ball that hard against him."
That is, until the next batter. Tanaka, on a 1-1 count to Mike Napoli, fired another fastball. Napoli blistered a home run 405 feet toward the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Tanaka flinched even worse. His hands flashed upward and his body rippled, like someone taking a punch to the chin.
He was now faced with baseball's truest test: responding to the failure inherent in the game. Would Tanaka, the 25-year-old beneficiary of a $175 million investment -- the most the Yankees had ever spent on any free agent pitcher -- crack and begin to falter as New York's other Asian pitchers had? (Most notable was Kei Igawa, who played so poorly the Yankees benefited more from keeping him in the minors than calling him up.) Or would he live up to his 24-0 record with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last year, which presaged the offseason bidding war in which Tanaka became the most hotly pursued Japanese pitcher in history?
Tanaka waited for Napoli to round the bases and stared as Gomes dug in. His body language betrayed nothing; he showed no sign of panic. His face looked determined, if flushed with anger. Two pitches into the at-bat he got Gomes to fly out. But then A.J. Pierzynski doubled off the Monster -- Another crack? The makings of a Red Sox rout? Tanaka snatched the ball but remained otherwise serene. He promptly struck out Xander Bogaerts to end the inning. That night Tanaka faced 12 more hitters, and none advanced beyond second base. The next day, chatting in the batting cage, Red Sox hitters would marvel at how he seemed to throw harder as the game progressed, nicking the edges of the strike zone, his split-fingered fastball fooling hitter after hitter as it sank out of sight at the plate. Tanaka pitched 7 innings, picking up the 9-3 win, and stayed perfect on the year at 3-0.
As Yankees catcher Brian McCann says, "He knows when to go to max effort."
In ESPN The Magazine's Transactions Issue, Buster Olney writes that Masahiro Tanaka is better than anyone imagined -- and funnier too. In fact, it may not be too early to wonder if we're looking at a future Yankees legend.