Masahiro Tanaka to start opener

ByWallace Matthews ESPN logo
Friday, March 27, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's official: Masahiro Tanaka will make the Opening Day start for the New York Yankees against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 6 at Yankee Stadium, ending the six-year Opening Day run of the former ace, CC Sabathia.

The announcement from manager Joe Girardi on Friday morning was hardly a surprise, since it was clear last season that Tanaka had assumed the role of ace from Sabathia, whose effectiveness has been compromised by elbow and knee injuries and a significant loss of fastball velocity over the past two seasons.

With the exception of Tanaka's last outing against the New York Mets, he has pitched well this spring, showing virtually no ill effects from the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament he suffered last July that cost him two months of his rookie season.

Girardi said the choice of Tanaka to start the season opener was as much about protecting his health as it was a reward for his 13-5, 2.77 ERA season in 2014.

"He did have a great year, but I worry more about the physical part than anything because that's what's going to carry us through the season," Girardi said. "Rewards come at the end of October."

The way the early part of the schedule lays out, Tanaka -- who will make his final spring start on Tuesday against the Minnesota Twins at Fort Myers -- will get an extra day's rest before the opener as well as an extra day before each of his next two starts due to off days in the schedule.

He will also be on a pitch count for the opener, believed to be 90 pitches; he has not thrown more than 60 in a game so far this spring.

It is all part of the Yankees' plan to avoid worsening Tanaka's UCL tear, an injury normally repaired by Tommy John surgery. The Yankees chose to treat Tanaka non-surgically, with platelet-rich plasma injections followed by a modified throwing program.

"When we came into spring training, our main focus was to make sure they were both healthy," Girardi said of Tanaka and Sabathia. "And we took it slow because of things they dealt with the year before."

But taking away the honor of an Opening Day start was clearly a delicate issue for Girardi since Sabathia had started every Opening Day for the Yankees since joining the team before the 2009 season (six straight openers overall).

"If CC wouldn't have had the (knee) problem and pitched all 30 starts, it probably would have been a nonissue who was going to go No. 1, but it didn't happen that way," Girardi said. "I know it's a big deal, and it might be somewhat of a deal to them, but when CC looks back, he's going to worry about Octobers."

Sabathia was not available for comment because Girardi made his announcement after the Yankees' clubhouse was closed to the media, but last week, the left-hander shrugged off the importance of making the Opening Day start, saying, "I've done it before."

Tanaka, on the other hand, started just one Opening Day in Japan, in 2012, and seemed quite pleased to get the nod from Girardi.

"I'm honored, obviously," he said. "I'm not really sure what the reason is behind me being the Opening Day starter, but they made that decision for me to go out there that very first day. All I'm thinking right now is to go out there and do my best."

It will be the second consecutive season Tanaka has made his first start against the Blue Jays; last year in Toronto, he was greeted roughly when Melky Cabrera hit a leadoff home run.

"He's gone, so I wouldn't have that sort of negative image from last year," Tanaka said, well-aware that Cabrera is now a member of the Chicago White Sox. "Obviously, I'd like to have a different outcome for the first batter this season. But the biggest difference is I'll be pitching at home, and I'm really happy about that."