October Hiro: Tanaka delivers another playoff gem in must-win Game 1 for Yankees

With Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole looming, the New York Yankees absolutely had to have Game 1 — and they got it with their own postseason ace on the mound.

Masahiro Tanaka was brilliant once again — as he has been every October — facing the minimum over six shutout innings, and the Yankees throttled the Houston Astros 7-0 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park to take a 1-0 lead in the American League Championship Series.

“Well, first he’s really good, so that’s a good place to start,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Tanaka. “And I think he does a good job clearly of not necessarily making more of the moment. I think the guys that can lock in and are in command of their body and their mechanics have a chance to be better when these stakes are high, and he’s very good at that.

“He’s very good at his craft and understanding what makes him work and what makes him effective and the ability to repeat his delivery and really command a few pitches today was big.”

Tanaka, who permitted only two baserunners all evening, now owns a 1.32 ERA in seven career postseason starts. He was pulled after only 68 pitches, however, with the Yankees electing to go by the numbers (opponents owned a .943 OPS the third time through the order against Tanaka during the regular season) over the eye-test (that the Astros’ lineup looked lifeless against him).

But despite being first-guessed on its decision to pull Tanaka when he was dealing, the team’s strategy worked, with a relentless offense led by 22-year-old wunderkind Gleyber Torres (five RBIs) providing a significant cushion on the scoreboard (a 3-0 lead becoming 5-0 in the seventh), and high-octane relievers Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Jonathan Loaisiga combining to record the final nine outs.

“It’s a team decision. No surprise there,” Tanaka told the YES Network after the game.

Boone told reporters he did consider letting Tanaka continue, “but he was getting tired and the ball was kind of slipping out a little bit there in the last inning. So I was considering sending him back out there, but then we decided against it.”

The Yankees — under the collaborative efforts of Boone, GM Brian Cashman and the team’s significant analytics staff — have made no secret of their desire to be aggressive with their bullpen when they get a lead. Their starting rotation was considered a question mark going into the postseason. But so far, James Paxton (4.2 IP, 3 ER, 8 K), Luis Severino (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 4 K) and Tanaka (11 IP, 1 ER, 11 K) have been able to rise to the occasion and pitch as deep as is necessary with the power bullpen depth the Yankees possess. Thus far, their relievers have allowed three runs in 16.1 innings in October.

On Saturday night, the 30-year-old Tanaka was able to get ahead (throwing first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 18 batters he faced) and locate his fastball (which maxed out at only 92.7 mph) early in counts, which allowed him to turn to his plus arsenal of off-speed pitches later on. The Astros beat several pitches into the ground, right into the Yankees’ infield shift. And D.J. LeMahieu — he of the pop-up blunder during the ALDS — served as a vacuum at first base, scooping several throws out of the dirt.

Oct 12, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (19) throws against the Houston Astros in the first inning in game one of the 2019 ALCS playoff baseball series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Tanaka, who had four 1-2-3 innings, allowed only one hit (a third-inning single to Kyle Tucker) and one walk (to Alex Bregman leading off the fourth). But both baserunners were erased on double-plays one batter later. Jose Altuve was particularly flummoxed by Tanaka, who was able to throw his slider with pinpoint accuracy to the outside corner against the former AL MVP (pop-up, strikeout).

After relying on his splitter his entire career, Tanaka has battled his command of the pitch in 2019 due to the new baseball. He even had to change his grip on his splitter this season as a result. On Saturday night, all eight of Tanaka’s swings and misses came via his slider, which has emerged as his main weapon.

The Yankees started Tanaka behind Paxton against the Minnesota Twins in Round 1, but elected to flip-flop the duo in Round 2. And had they lost Game 1 — in the same city they couldn’t win (0-4) or score in (three runs) during the 2017 ALCS — their backs would’ve already been up against the wall with Verlander and Cole pitching in Games 2 and 3.

Instead, Tanaka took care of business in a must-win game for The Bronx Bombers.

“It’s been a rough road for us playing here. We’ve had a tough time actually getting a ‘W’ here,” Tanaka told the YES Network. “I’m just out there grinding everything out and the results were good and I’ll take that.”

It’s a true talent he has, the annual ability to become an elite pitcher in October after being so average from March through September.

Tanaka’s regular-season ERA in 2019 was 4.45. In 32 games (31 starts), he allowed 28 homers.

Yet none of that matters right now — given his postseason ERA in 2019 sits at 0.82.