The Yankees began their toughest stretch of the season thus far on Monday night against the Rays in a showdown that will likely help decide the AL East crown. The series began with an unexpected bit of intrigue, as it has been leaked that the Yankees’ trade for Edwin Encarnacion kept him from being traded to the Rays. Encarnacion played his first game for the Yanks against the Rays on Monday night, although his offense would not be required as the Yanks rode the best start any pitcher has made for the Yankees this season from Tanaka to a 3-0 win to up their lead in the AL East to 1.5 games.
Tanaka gave the Yanks everything they could have hoped for and more on Monday night. I still don’t think he had a vintage Tanaka splitter tonight, but man it’s hard to argue with Tanaka’s results. Tanaka utilized a heavy dose of sliders and splitters to neutralize and baffle the Rays lineup. When Tanaka wasn’t striking the Rays out, he was able to keep the Rays from making hard contact, epitomized by the weak chopper that Tanaka induced to end the game. He got a bit of help from the defense on two or three occasions (we’ll get to that later), but I’d be nitpicking to even consider making those plays the main story. In an era where Complete Games are almost as rare as hitting for the cycle, Tanaka tossed a Complete Game Shutout in a matchup with pennant implications.
Tanaka’s final line tonight: 9 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 10 K, 111 Pitches. I was very concerned that Boone was going to pull Tanaka after both the 7th and 8th innings. At separate times, Boone did get Ottavino and Chapman loose, but this game was Tanaka’s to finish all the way. In his postgame interview with Meredith Marakovits, Tanaka implied that he was surprised when Boone asked him if he was good to finish prior to the 9th inning. Leaving this game to the bullpen likely never entered Tanaka’s mind. I know and agree with the modern concern with pitch limits, but Tanaka deserved to finish what he started tonight. Even more importantly, the bullpen has been stretched pretty thin lately, so Tanaka’s big start tonight was even more important than just winning. Tanaka’s 9 innings tonight will help the bullpen stay fresh for the next couple of nights. Tanaka quite simply deserved every cheer he heard tonight.
Too Many Homers
I kid. The Yankees scored three runs tonight, all by way of homer. While the Yankees will have one of the most powerful lineups in the league by the beginning of next week, the power sources for tonight’s runs were from some less likely sources. DJ LeMahieu, who played a fantastic two-way game tonight, swatted a hanging two-seam fastball from Yonny Chorinos over the left-centerfield fence for a two-run shot, scoring Maybin.
Maybin would then add the exclamation mark with a no doubt solo shot to left in the bottom of the 5th. According to Statcast, Maybin’s home run traveled faster than 109 MPH. It was great to see Maybin hit that shot. Maybin has been quietly excellent during his time in pinstripes, but with the cavalry returning shortly, Maybin will likely be DFA’d or traded in a minor deal in the coming days. If this was his last game in a Yankee uniform, I’m glad he made it count.
Encarnacion’s First Game as a Yankee
It’s hard to believe that it’s taken me this long to talk about the Yankees’ landscape-shifting trade acquisition, but Tanaka’s big game overshadowed Encarnacion’s debut. Encarnacion batted 5th and started at DH, going 0-4. Encarnacion’s line for the game is a bit misleading, though. Encarnacion roped multiple balls foul, and he sure looked like he had Chirinos’ number prior to striking out after a long at-bat. Encarnacion may be known for his prodigious power, but it’s hard not to appreciate his professional approach at the plate. He is far more than just a hacker, and he fits in to the lineup well. While it may not be a perfect fit from a positional perspective, Encarnacion will be fun to watch the rest of the year.
Odds and Ends
Gleyber Torres made a great play on a groundball to his left in the 2nd inning off of the bat of Kevin Kiermaier. Torres has looked more comfortable at SS than he has at 2B in his short big league career, but this play was an instinctive grab and flip to first to get the out. Plays like this give me hope that Torres will eventually be a very good defensive 2B.
LeMahieu also flashed the leather in the 4th inning. Garcia hit a hot shot back up the middle that Tanaka got a piece of with his glove. The Yankees were shifted such that LeMahieu, playing 3B tonight, was on the 2B side of the bag up the middle on the play. LeMahieu managed to grab the ball up the middle and flip it to Didi for the force out at 2B to end the inning. LeMahieu is just so good defensively, and he has more range than you would expect looking at him.
Tanaka’s splitter continues to have more horizontal movement than vertical movement this season. He made it work for him tonight in combination with an increasingly lethal slider, but I’m beginning to worry that the splitter of season’s past may be gone. Speculation abounds that the ball has changed yet again this season, and I for one believe it based on the increase in homers an in Tanaka’s inability to find consistent feel for what has traditionally been his best pitch. Tanaka was brilliant, but I still worry about the splitter.
When Tanaka finished his shutout, he was just beaming on the field, and shared a smile and a laugh with Gary Sanchez. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tanaka smile that much on the field. He earned it tonight.
With a 1-0 series lead, the Yankees will resume the series in the Bronx at 7:05 PM EST tomorrow night. JA Happ will spin it for the Yankees as the Rays will turn to the bullpen to pull them through tomorrow night. If Happ continues with his inconsistent season, the bullpen will be happy that Tanaka gave them the night off tonight.