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Masahiro Tanaka learns to live under Yankees microscope

Whether Masahiro Tanaka is throwing a bullpen session on a back field, playing catch or jogging laps, hordes of media chronicle — and dissect — each second of these mundane spring training activities.
Whether Masahiro Tanaka is throwing a bullpen session on a back field, playing catch or jogging laps, hordes of media chronicle — and dissect — each second of these mundane spring training activities.
Published Feb. 25, 2014

TAMPA

From the moment Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka arrived on American soil last month, nearly every move has been under the microscope.

There was his extravagant entrance, chartering a Boeing 787 Dreamliner — costing around $200,000 — to bring himself, his pop-singing wife and toy poodle from Japan to New York. Then came the mega news conference at Yankee Stadium, with 200-plus members of the media and a worldwide audience watching the 25-year-old put on his pinstripes for the first time.

"This is Yankees big," general manager Brian Cashman would say. "This is Steinbrenner big. It would make 'The Boss' proud."

Tanaka, signed to a seven-year, $155 million deal, has garnered the type of attention that the late George Steinbrenner craved. Whether Tanaka is throwing a bullpen session on a back field, playing catch or jogging laps, hordes of media chronicle — and dissect — each second of these mundane spring training activities. Cameras click. Fans, lining the fence, yell his name.

You see, for the nearly half-billion the Yankees spent this offseason, acquiring the likes of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Bronx's man of mystery is Tanaka, who hasn't thrown a big-league pitch but may be a key to their rotation.

So far, McCann says Tanaka has been "as good as advertised."

"The only thing I've seen is paint, paint, paint — this guy has command of everything he's throwing," said David Wells, a former Yankees starter who is a spring training instructor. "He seems really comfortable. He doesn't look nervous. He doesn't look intimidated by anything.

"It's like he's been here for a long time."

Tanaka pitched on the big stage in Japan and was nearly perfect for the Rakuten Eagles last season, going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and leading the club to a Japan Series championship. Known as a bulldog on the mound, Tanaka threw a 160-pitch complete game in Game 6 then tossed 15 pitches in relief the next day.

Tanaka, at 6 feet 2, 201 pounds, is not as powerful as the Rangers' 6-5 righty Yu Darvish but can hit 90-96 mph, with manager Joe Girardi saying he can "turn it up a notch" when he needs it. Tanaka also has two- and four-seam fastballs, slider, changeup and curve. But it's his split-finger that some consider one of the best in the world, a pitch that McCann says "drops off the table," disguised by a delivery similar to his fastball. "I've never seen a ball move like that before," catcher Austin Romine said.

Tanaka was the pitching prize of the offseason, with several teams paying Rakuten the $20 million posting fee and bidding for his services. Tanaka picked the prestige, and pressure, of the Yankees.

"The New York Yankees are rich in tradition, rich in history, and the team is always asked to win the World Series every single year," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "So I wanted to put myself in that type of environment and play baseball."

Whether Tanaka can thrive in that environment, especially in the American League East, remains to be seen. There are many adjustments he has to make, such as pitching with a bigger baseball than in Japan, starting on five days' rest instead of once a week and getting acclimated to life in America, from the culture, food and language.

"Everything is new to me," Tanaka said. "But little by little, I'm getting used to it."

The Yankees, having scouted Tanaka for several years, are confident, which is why they gave him the fifth-largest contract for a pitcher in major-league history. Tanaka won't have to be the ace, likely following CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda in the rotation. He has a support staff in place, including an interpreter, with Kuroda serving as an unofficial mentor and catch partner.

"He told me, 'Just be yourself. Try not to do too much, do your own pace, and you should be okay,' " Tanaka said of Kuroda.

Tanaka escapes the cameras when he leaves Steinbrenner Field and relaxes at his Tampa apartment. His wife, Mai Satoda, is a good cook, and his 2-year-old dog, Haru, keeps him on his toes.

"Its personality is more like a cat," Tanaka said, laughing. "It's very spontaneous."

Tanaka has taken up golf in his spare time. Though judging by his last score, 96, he's not a finished product.

Tanaka smiled: "I'm working on that right now."

At least on the golf course, there'll be fewer people watching.

Times staff writer Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.

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