Why has Masahiro Tanaka been so dominant against the Rays?

Tanaka lowered his ERA against the Rays this season to 0.41 after Monday’s 3-0 win.
New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka congratulates teammates after pitching a complete baseball game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays, Monday, June 17, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Sarah Stier)
New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka congratulates teammates after pitching a complete baseball game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays, Monday, June 17, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Sarah Stier)
Published June 18

NEW YORK — One day after Father’s Day, the Rays met their daddy.

But to say that Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka has dominated the Rays might be an understatement.

In the Rays’ 3-0 loss to the Yankees in the Bronx on Monday night, Tanaka twirled his second complete-game shutout in his past six starts against the Rays.

"For what it's worth, it seems like he's tough against us every time here or at our ballpark," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He's got our number right now."

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He lowered his ERA against the Rays this season to a minuscule 0.41 in three starts. And over his past seven starts against Tampa Bay, Tanaka owns a 1.29 ERA, allowing just seven earned runs over 49 innings, logging 56 strikeouts and just three walks over that stretch.

"Look, he has a knack for pitching to the edges and getting a lot of soft contact on some pitches you probably would rather not offer at," Cash added. "But maybe a little bit of a more less aggressive approach might help."

There aren't many pitchers who throw fewer four-seam fastballs than Tanaka, just roughly 30 percent of his pitches. He leans mostly on his slider and splitter.

And it’s his slider that seems to be the perfect swing-and-miss pitch against the left-handed heavy Rays lineup.

“The whole game he didn’t leave anything down the middle, really," designated hitter Austin Meadows said. "So you’re going to have to be either really patient or swing at his pitches, so that’s what he does so good.”

Tanaka can vary the velocity on the slider — on Monday it went from 80 to 86 mph — and it’s a tantalizing pitch that seems hittable low in the zone, then sweeps away from righties and down to the inside to the back foot of lefties.

"He's got such feel on how he can expand that pitch and how he can just use it to both sides of the plate and he did a good job ot that," catcher Mike Zunino said. "There's not many guys in the league who have that feel."

Tanaka has mostly been extremely successful against the Rays over his big-league career, which began in 2017. Take away two rocky outings in 2017 and Tanaka owns a 2.09 ERA over his 15 other career starts against the Rays.

That's some consistency.

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And in his three wins against the Rays this year, Tanaka’s slider has been magic. Of the 23 swinging strikes Tanaka recorded Monday, 13 were on sliders. In his three starts against the Rays this season, half of his swinging strikes (25 of 50) have come from sliders.

By now, the Rays hitters know what's coming, but they can't help but swing at it, and they can't hit it.

Tanaka is the Rays' kryptonite.

“I think you know he’s going to attack you with the slider and the offspeed stuff and it’s one thing looking for it and it’s one thing looking for it in a certain spot,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “Maybe as a whole a little too aggressive and we missed a few as a team to start some innings.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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