CLEVELAND — Their offense has sputtered and their starting pitching has crumbled, and yet three months into the season, the New York Yankees have remained competitive. It is easy to recognize why: When their ace, Masahiro Tanaka, pitches, the Yankees tend to win.
This has happened in 13 of Tanaka’s 18 starts, but not on Tuesday, when he pitched the worst game of his remarkable debut season in the major leagues. He was somewhat evasive afterward in offering a reason for his struggles, but on Wednesday a clearer answer emerged.
Tanaka flew back to New York to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam on his right elbow — his pitching arm — and was later placed on the disabled list with what the team described as elbow inflammation.
Manager Joe Girardi said that a full determination of Tanaka’s condition might be delayed because the team doctor, Chris Ahmad, was attending a medical conference in Seattle and would want to both review the MRI results and examine Tanaka before any conclusions were reached. The Yankees were trying to arrange a meeting as quickly as possible, and Tanaka may fly there as early as Thursday. With so many top orthopedists in one place, Ahmad would be able to seek a second opinion quickly if necessary.
Still, Girardi underlined the seriousness of the situation when he said before Wednesday’s game, “I think you’re always worried when you have a guy go back for an elbow MRI.’’
He added: “I’m not saying it’s a significant injury, I’m not saying that. But there’s soreness, and he must have felt that it was affecting him a little bit, so he said something.’’
After allowing five runs and 10 hits in a 5-3 loss to the Indians, Tanaka did not mention any physical discomfort, saying only that he understood why he struggled but that “it’s really difficult for me to tell you why that was.’’
However, Girardi said Wednesday afternoon that Tanaka had told the team’s training staff after the game that his elbow felt sore. It was the first time all season, Girardi said, that Tanaka had complained that he did not feel right.
“We saw his velocity was normal, we saw some really good splits and some good sliders,’’ Girardi said. “There wasn’t anything that led us to believe there was anything wrong.’’
Brian McCann, who caught Tanaka on Tuesday night, seemed surprised Wednesday that Tanaka was bothered by a sore elbow, saying that he did not sense anything wrong with Tanaka during the game. “The only thing from yesterday,’’ McCann said, “was that his pitches didn’t have the sharp action they had in the past.’’
For the Yankees, all this — not to mention Brett Gardner’s unavailability because of a lower abdominal injury and the facial contusion Carlos Beltran sustained when he was struck during batting practice by a ball that caromed off the cage — signified a sobering, even foreboding moment in a season in which three other starters have already missed time with significant injuries. Ivan Nova (elbow) and, likely, C.C. Sabathia (knee) are out for the year. Michael Pineda (shoulder) has a chance to pitch again in 2014.
Amid all those setbacks, Tanaka has been the Yankees’ constant, going 12-4 with a 2.51 earned run average to help them from sliding out of contention, and relevance, in the American League. But no one else on their staff can supply his length, or his consistency, or instill the same sense of calmness on days he pitches. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Yankees were 31-39 when Tanaka did not pitch.
A similar certainty of victory existed when he pitched in Japan, where last season he went 24-0 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles and led his team to the Japan Series title.
Their run to a championship was highlighted by Tanaka’s willingness to throw 15 pitches in Game 7, earning the save, the day after throwing 160 in a complete-game loss. That is an alarming volume by major league standards, but Tanaka’s workload did not prevent teams from pursuing him.
In recent years, as injuries have increased, teams have turned ever more cautious in how they treat and monitor their pitchers. In respect to the routine Tanaka adhered to in Japan, the Yankees have tried to accommodate him by giving him extra rest whenever possible.
The schedule prevented them from doing so this month, forcing Tanaka to work on four days’ rest July 3 in Minnesota, when he gave up four runs and nine hits, and again Tuesday night, when Tanaka stressed that he did not feel fatigued, just that he lacked command.
He did lack command, but there was something else, too. His elbow is hurting, and Tanaka is sidelined, and the Yankees, for the sake of their pitcher and their season, can only hope his situation is not serious. Koji Uehara of the Boston Red Sox will replace Tanaka on the AL All-Star team.