TORONTO (Reuters) - Masahiro Tanaka got his debut off to the shakiest of starts before showing why the New York Yankees spent $175 million to bring him to the Major Leagues as he led the Bronx Bombers to a 7-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday.
Melky Cabrera, the first major league batter the 25-year-old Japanese ace faced in a regular season game, welcomed him to the big leagues by taking him over the wall in right field for a home run.
The Blue Jays continued to rough up Tanaka in the second, pushing across two more runs to jump in front 3-2 but he soon found his groove to quieten the cheers of the capacity crowd crammed into Rogers Centre for the Toronto home opener.
The right-hander delivered seven innings of impressive work, surrendering six hits, three runs (two earned) while striking out eight without a walk to collect his first major league win.
“It was my mistake and I felt Cabrera took a really good swing,” Tanaka said through a translator. “I was nervous before going into the game.
“When I was on the mound I felt like couldn’t really get into the game. I really couldn’t focus at the beginning. I was able to focus better around the third inning.
“I’m obviously happy, but number one I am relieved.”
Tanaka’s debut was one of the most eagerly anticipated in recent baseball memory and an army of Japanese media made the trek to the Major League’s northern outpost for a game that attracted huge interest on both sides of the Pacific.
With pitching being baseball’s most valuable commodity, gambling on a promising pitcher is as much a part of the American national pastime as hot dogs and home runs.
But never before had a team bet so much with so little guarantee, the Yankees handing over a $20 million posting fee to Tanaka’s Pacific League club the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles then signing him to $155 million seven-year deal.
Potential comes with a hefty price tag and the possibility that Tanaka’s 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA with the Golden Eagles last season could maybe translate into similar big league numbers in the Bronx was a temptation to great for the Yankees to resist.
“He’s the real deal,” said Blue Jays coach John Gibbons. “To accomplish what he did last year going undefeated, I don’t care what league you’re pitching in that’s pretty remarkable.
“The Yankees don’t miss on too many things. They go after someone they usually have a pretty good idea.
“Almost all the Japanese pitchers who come over and pitch in the U.S. are all really good pitchers, I don’t see why this would be any different.”
“You never know but unless they felt really good about it they wouldn’t have done it.
“I’m sure they scouted this guy over and over and over, his reputation. They don’t miss too many times.”
But for every Yu Darvish there is a Daisuke Matsuzaka, two highly priced and hyped Japanese imports headed in dramatically different directions.
After six seasons with the Boston Red Sox and last year with the New York Mets, Matsuzaka, or Dice K as the pitcher with the mysterious gyroball became known to Americans, started the current campaign in the minors.
Darvish, meanwhile, has established himself as the ace of Rangers rotation and one of the American League’s best.
While clubs employ everything from computer programs to statistical analysis and old fashion scouting to get a picture of a pitcher’s potential, some dazzle and some are duds.
Finding a 20-game winner remains an inexact science, teams do their best due diligence and then take a leap of faith.
“He did a really good job,” summed up Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “I think it is really impressive when you think about all he’s had to deal with, the attention that has been on him. I think he handled it great.
“I think he did a really good job of controlling his emotions and finding himself after the first couple of innings.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney