CLEVELAND — The New York Yankees put their ace, Masahiro Tanaka, on a plane to Seattle on Thursday to have his ailing right elbow examined, and then there was nothing else they could do but hope.
Hope that his condition was nothing insidious, just some inflammation. Hope that he could rejoin their rotation this year, not next, or even in 2016. Hope that their postseason prospects, propped up almost entirely by Tanaka’s outstanding debut season, would remain viable.
In the evening the Yankees learned the extent of Tanaka’s injury, and then, too, there was nothing else they could do but hope. A small tear was discovered in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and general manager Brian Cashman said it would sideline Tanaka for at least six weeks. But if Tanaka’s elbow fails to respond to the prescribed rehabilitation program, it may eventually require reconstructive Tommy John surgery, which would cause him to miss most, if not all, of next season.
“If this was an obvious situation that he needed surgery at the outset, then that’s what we would be doing,’’ Cashman said on a teleconference during the Yankees’ game against the Cleveland Indians. “But that’s not what we’re getting.’’
Tanaka was examined in Seattle because the team doctor, Chris Ahmad, was there attending a medical conference, and the timing of the injury offered a welcomed benefit: With so many top orthopedists in Seattle, Ahmad and the Yankees would be able to pursue second (or third) opinions, if necessary.
In all, three orthopedists evaluated Tanaka and the magnetic resonance imaging test he underwent Wednesday in New York — Ahmad; David Altchek, the New York Mets’ medical director; and Neal ElAttrache, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ team physician, who examined Tanaka in Los Angeles over the winter, before he became a Yankee.
The doctors compared Tanaka’s most recent MRI with the one taken in January and determined that he had sustained a new injury. Because the tear was small, Cashman said, none recommended surgery. All the doctors, he said, agreed that a program of platelet-rich plasma treatment followed by strengthening exercises, and then a throwing regimen, could return Tanaka to the Yankees’ rotation by the end of August. Cashman added that the plan could change based on Tanaka’s progress.
Although he declined to mention names, Cashman said the Yankees have had previous success with pitchers who had partial tears and were able to avoid surgery. He said he asked the doctors how often this protocol succeeds, and he was told that it depends on the pitcher. Some pitchers with partial tears who were placed on a strengthening program, including Matt Harvey and Bobby Parnell of the Mets, eventually do wind up needing reconstructive surgery.
“Depending on the circumstances and the size of the tear,’’ Cashman said, “the ligaments can repair themselves, and they’ve had success with it.’’
Speaking at Citi Field, Harvey explained why he decided to have Tommy John surgery.
“For me, it was a mental thing,’’ he said. “It was something I kind of could feel would linger in the back of my mind going forward. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to wake up thinking, ‘Is today going to be the day?’’’
The Yankees, like many other teams, were captivated by Tanaka’s repertoire and his success in Japan, where he went 24-0 last season in leading the Rakuten Golden Eagles to a championship. Neither Tanaka’s workload nor his reliance on the splitter, a pitch that taxes the elbow, dissuaded them from investing $175 million in him over seven years to headline their rotation.
His performance — 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA — is the prevailing reason the Yankees, despite all their injuries and flaws, remained competitive in the American League East.
Tanaka muddled through the worst outing of his 18-start major league career Tuesday night, allowing five runs over 6 2/3 innings, but manager Joe Girardi reiterated Thursday that he sensed nothing physically wrong with him.
“We saw him throw hard; we saw his split was good,’’ said Girardi, who noted that Nick Swisher clobbered a flat slider for a two-run homer. “At no point did he indicate that he was having a problem.’’
Despite persistent prodding, Girardi, though he had been given preliminary readings that the tear was small, betrayed no knowledge of Tanaka’s status in speaking with reporters Thursday afternoon.
His body language and the modulation of his voice indicated neither relief nor despair, just a man seeking clarity about his best pitcher. Now that those initial findings have been confirmed, Girardi must set about steering a team that has lost four members of its opening-day rotation to serious injuries and doing his part to keep it in contention.
“We’ll figure it out,’’ Girardi said after Thursday’s game. “I mean, that’s what we’ve had to do all year.’’
Tanaka’s injury piled onto an already miserable day for the Yankees, who sent Carlos Beltran back to New York for testing the morning after a freak mishap during batting practice Wednesday — a ball caromed off the metal frame of a screen and struck him in the face — left him with a broken nose and a concussion.
Beltran seemed confident after Wednesday’s game that he had not sustained a concussion, but an evaluation by a doctor — and subsequent reading of his CT scan — revealed otherwise.
Beltran was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list, replaced on the roster by infielder Yangervis Solarte. Girardi said he was optimistic that Beltran would be available to rejoin the team after the All-Star break.
As for Tanaka, he will not return then. As for when — August? September? Next season? — the Yankees do not know. All they can do is hope.
David Phelps allowed only two runs in six innings, but the Cleveland Indians battered the Yankees’ bullpen in the seventh and eighth to power Cleveland to a 9-3 victory. … Before his final regular-season game in Cleveland, the Indians honored Derek Jeter in a ceremony that included his former Yankees teammates Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi. Jeter received a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar and a portrait of his first career home run, hit here on April 2, 1996, off Dennis Martinez, made in Legos.