Yankees: Should Masahiro Tanaka Start The Wild Card Game?

This coming Wednesday, Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone will be forced to make a decision that could very easily make or break his first year with the club. 

Boone inherited a team that was jam-packed with talent, and although the team has dominated the regular season to the tune of a 98-61 record, they just couldn’t catch the powerhouse Red Sox. This thrusts them into baseball’s one-game crapshoot, the Wild Card Game.

The Yankees have played this game twice before and have experienced both ends of the outcome. In 2015 against an upcoming Houston Astros club, they experienced the brutal disappointment of a successful season thrown away in one loss after getting manhandled by Dallas Keuchel.

Then in 2017 against the Twins, they experienced the jubilation of a wild comeback win in, highlighted by Didi Gregorius’ monster game-tying three-run home run in the bottom of the first inning after ace Luis Severino faltered and only recorded one out and exited the game down 3-0, leaving the Yankees’ bullpen to record 26 outs.

This year, they face the Oakland Athletics, a team with low expectations coming into the season who rode career seasons from players like Khris Davis, Matt Chapman, and Sean Manaea to secure the other Wild Card spot.

So back to Boone. He has three compelling starting pitchers who he could give the ball to on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. He could go with trade deadline acquisition J.A. Happ who has been the Yankees’ most reliable starter since he was acquired from the Blue Jays. He could turn to Luis Severino, who would have been the slam-dunk choice until his abysmal second half (though he has been better in recent starts after all those ugly performances). Or he could turn to Masahiro Tanaka.

Yankees mastermind General Manager Brian Cashman signed Tanaka to a 7-year, $161 million deal out of Japan prior to the 2014 season. Though he has battled a number of injuries over the years including a partially torn UCL in 2014, he has been rather consistent, especially this season. He finished the regular season with a 12-6 record, a 3.75 ERA and 159 strikeouts. He also walked fewer batters than he did in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Though his stats were tainted with two bad starts at the end of the season (one against the powerhouse Red Sox and one against the Rays in Tampa Bay when multiple routine plays not being made severely hurt his line), they were still rather impressive. He also had his highlight of the season in the second half, a complete game 3 hit shutout in Tampa Bay against the Rays.

In 2017, Tanaka came through again and again in the playoffs when the Yankees needed him most. He pitched to a 0.90 (yes, you read that correctly) ERA in three games, including a masterful outing in ALDS Game 3 against the Indians.

With the Yankees down 2-0 in the series and on the brink of elimination, Tanaka pitched 7 scoreless innings aided by Aaron Judge’s home run robbery of Francisco Lindor and allowed only three hits, setting the Yankees up for Greg Bird’s (remember him?) home run off Andrew Miller, providing the game’s only run in a 1-0 victory. He then pitched to a 1.38 ERA in two starts in the ALCS against the Astros, allowing only seven hits and two runs over 13 innings. Long story short, Tanaka knows about coming up clutch in must-win playoff games.

Now let’s look at Tanaka’s stats against Oakland’s best hitter. That best hitter this season has been Khris Davis, an outfielder who has hit .249 with 47 home runs, 141 hits and 121 RBI’s through September 27. Davis has been in talks as a potential MVP Candidate, exceedingly rare coming from a small market team like Oakland. However, Tanaka has more than just handled Davis, he has dominated him. Over his career, Davis has hit a measly .083 against Tanaka, only going 1 for 12, with seven strikeouts for good measure.

So in addition to keeping Oakland’s best hitter under wraps and having playoff experience, there’s one more upside to starting Tanaka in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees went into this season with an all or nothing mantra. This cannot be abandoned in the playoffs. That means that the Yankees not only have to focus on winning the Wild Card Game, they also have to be prepared to have their pitchers lined up well for the ALDS against the Red Sox (if they do indeed win the Wild Card Game).

Happ has been the team’s best pitcher against Boston this season. In his last start against the Sox, he went six innings, only giving up one run and four hits while striking out six batters. Him being able to start Game One of the ALDS and toe the rubber against Boston’s ace Chris Sale could give the Yankees a good chance to take a 1-0 lead in the series, which would be so, so, so key in gaining momentum.

In summary, although you really can’t go wrong with Severino or Happ either, Masahiro Tanaka should be the guy to get the ball come Wednesday.

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