Masahiro Tanaka back to being Yankees' best option

NEW YORK — The race for the playoffs is now very real, and so is the New York Yankees’ desire to develop the kids. But there’s something else significant that has happened this August and September.

Masahiro Tanaka looks like an ace again.

You couldn’t say that a year ago, when some people questioned the Yankees’ decision to start Tanaka in the American League wild-card game. But if the Yankees can complete this long shot run and make it back, there’s absolutely no doubt which pitcher they would want to have on the mound for that wild-card game.

They’ve won all seven of Tanaka’s starts since Aug. 2, including Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees also have a seven-game win streak overall, their first of the season and their first in September since 2012, which is also the last year they won a postseason game.

Tanaka was still in Japan in 2012, compiling the résumé that would convince the Yankees to sign him in January 2014 for $155 million over seven years. He hasn’t always seemed worth it, but now he looks like that pitcher again.

He’s not exactly the pitcher he used to be, because his fastball doesn’t have the same pop it did before he suffered a partial ligament tear in his right elbow. But instead of pushing to regain that velocity, he now uses a variety of pitches that are just as effective at fooling hitters.

“Hitters never know which way the ball is going to move,” said Yankees reliever Adam Warren, who took over for Tanaka in the eighth inning on Saturday and induced a key double play.

The Yankees know they’re going to get the consistency from Tanaka that they don’t from their other starting pitchers. They’ve had only five games over the past five weeks in which a starter has finished seven innings, and Tanaka started four of those.

“He has really stepped it up and performed at a really high level,” New York manager Joe Girardi said. “You feel good when he takes the mound.”

Girardi felt good to have Tanaka on the mound on Saturday, because the Rays were starting Chris Archer. Archer now has 18 losses, but he has allowed three earned runs or fewer in five straight starts.

“When you face Archer, you know it’s going to be hard to score,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “You get that sense you don’t want to give up any runs.”

Sure enough, Tanaka didn’t give up any runs until the eighth inning, when Bobby Wilson hit a one-out home run.

If the Yankees are to make it to the playoffs, they’ll obviously need more than just Tanaka. But it sure does help to have a dependable ace, which Tanaka has become.

It also helps to have someone like Gary Sanchez, the rookie catcher who has been the biggest single key to this Yankees run. Sanchez homered again Saturday, his 13th in just 33 games, and he also delivered the highlight everyone will remember when he turned an intended intentional walk into a sacrifice fly and nearly another home run.

Sanchez already has two intentional walks in his young career, and Rays manager Kevin Cash planned to make that three with runners at second and third and nobody out in the eighth inning on Saturday. Cash held up four fingers and catcher Bobby Wilson signaled for an intentional walk, but reliever Enny Romero‘s first pitch came a little too close to the plate.

Sanchez swung and hit it to the warning track in center field, good for a sacrifice fly that gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead — and also good for some laughs from his teammates.

“Great job by Gary Sanchez to be ready to hit,” Girardi said. “You have to be prepared, because if they throw it over the plate, it’s probably going to be one of the softer pitches you see in your career.”

Sanchez was prepared, and the Yankees soon had yet another win. They’re 20-9 since the day Sanchez hit his first major league home run on Aug. 10 in Boston, and 21-10 since Aug. 7, the day Tanaka began the string of seven consecutive starts the Yankees have won.

Sanchez has caught each of Tanaka’s past five starts, and Tanaka said Saturday he thinks the combination is working very well.

The results are obvious, but so was the next question. Since Tanaka speaks Japanese and uses an interpreter, and Sanchez speaks Spanish and uses an interpreter, which language do they use to communicate on the mound?

“English,” Tanaka said in English, laughing.

And which one of them speaks better English?

“Sanchez,” Tanaka said.

In any language, what Tanaka is doing now works. What the Yankees are doing now works too.

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