Since hurting his elbow in his first major league season, every Masahiro Tanaka start has had the air of a science experiment to find out what he’s capable of at that moment. The experimentation is typically about pitch combinations and approaches as Tanaka tests his ability to command his pitches in different locations and batters’ responses.
This year, it’s been a case of studying up how Japanese batters deal with his pitches. Without that plus-plus four-seamer, splitter combination Tanaka used to throw in 2013, he’s having a heck of a time finishing off slap hitters.
You can tell by his facial expression when he’s unable to prove the hypothesis he’s working on, something we saw a lot of on Friday, when analyst Tsutomu Iwamoto said, “You can see he’s getting more and more used to the challenges Japanese hitters pose, but it’s not been easy.”
In response, Tanaka’s used the cutter and two-seamer way more than he ever did, as we wait for that moment when he regains decent life on the fastball.
And so it was on Friday, except for the additional issue of fighting the umpire as well as his command as he returned to his laboratory for the first time since the Olympics.
Working from the third-base side of the rubber, Tanaka repeatedly tried to nip the front first-base corner of the strike zone with fastballs, testing umpire Kinji Nishimoto’s steadfast determination to call those pitches balls. Tanaka gave Nishimoto ample opportunities to reconsider, but the ump wouldn’t budge.
When Nishimoto failed to cut him any slack on two pitches inside to Haruki Nishikawa in the third, Tanaka walked him. Tanaka then began pounding the bottom of the zone, where he and Nishimoto seemed to be in agreement, leading to the second out.
But no sooner had Tanaka settled in on pounding the bottom of the zone, Nishimoto began calling those pitches balls. Without his best command allowing him to just rear back and fire, Tanaka hung a 1-0 splitter to Yuki James Nomura, who hit it for his second home run, and the fourth Nippon Ham had hit off Tanaka in four games.
Considering his inconsistent command and trouble getting called strikes on the edges, Tanaka did well to allow two runs, and indeed got lucky in the fifth, when he survived a two-on, no-out scrape on a combination of good pitches and sheer luck – Wang Po-Jung smashed a fat pitch but lined it to right for the final out.