Yankees vs. Astros ALCS: Masahiro Tanaka proves New York had a postseason ace all along

HOUSTON -- It's not a secret the New York Yankees came into the postseason with questions about their rotation. James Paxton was great in the second half but uneven overall in 2019. J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia struggled to keep the ball in the park, and Luis Severino missed five-and-a-half months with shoulder and lat injuries.

Masahiro Tanaka was a question too. The veteran kitchen-sinker pitched to a 4.45 ERA in 182 regular season innings, and he had so many problems with his trademark splitter that he changed the grip midseason. That's not something pitchers do on a whim. Tanaka figured out a new grip and pitched well down the stretch, but not enough to eliminate rotation concerns.

In Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday, Tanaka continued to cement his status as one of the game's best big game pitchers, setting the tone in a Yankees win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park (NYY 7, HOU 0). Thanks to two double plays, Tanaka faced the minimum through six scoreless innings, and needed only 68 pitches to do it.

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Masahiro Tanaka NYY • SP • 19
ALCS Game 1 vs. Astros
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"I think everything was pretty good tonight," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said following Game 1. "That's probably the best that we've seen him in a small sample to execute his game plan, his pitches, his tempo. Just about everything was working for him. We couldn't create a ton of traffic for him. When he did, he got some double plays. He was just really, really good tonight."

Aaron Judge added: "The poise of Masahiro to come in here -- a hostile environment -- and shut down one of the most potent offenses in the league. Couple huge double plays on the infield that we turned, and just timely hitting. It was a fun game. We had a plan and we stuck to it."

Tanaka allowed one run in five innings against the Twins in the ALDS, and Saturday night he became the first pitcher in MLB history to allow no more than two runs in any of his first seven postseason starts. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax is the only other pitcher to do it in his first six postseason starts. Tanaka now owns a 1.32 ERA in 41 career postseason innings.

"I think he does a good job clearly of not necessarily making more of the moment," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said about Tanaka's postseason excellence. "I think the guys that can lock in and are in command of their body and their mechanics have a chance to be better when the stakes are high, and he's very good at that. He's very good at his craft and understanding what makes him work and what makes him effective and the ability to repeat his delivery and really command his pitches tonight was big."

Thanks to his typically steady diet of sliders and splitters -- Tanaka threw only 17 fastballs in Game 1 -- Tanaka had an excellent Astros lineup beating the ball into the ground in his six innings. Only four of the 13 balls he allowed to be put in play left the infield, and only seven of the 18 batters he faced saw as many as five pitches in their at-bats. He left nothing out over the plate:

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Masahiro Tanaka lived on the edges of the zone throughout Game 1. Baseball Savant

"It's been a great pitch for him all year. It's a pitch he has a ton of confidence in," Boone said about the slider. "I thought he did a good job with his fastball tonight, though, also mixing that in enough and the splitter. But the slider all year for him -- I know a lot of the talk about his splitter throughout the year kind of being in and out and searching for it -- the slider has been a pitch he's really leaned on and it was again really good for him tonight. I thought he did a good job kind of changing shapes with times at it, changing speeds at times with it. He's really pitching efficient and in command tonight."

"Just keeping the guys off balance. Pounding the strike zone and doing a great job of getting grounders," Didi Gregorius added. "... He made a couple good pitches to get grounders and everything. That's what you want to see."    

Despite a 5-0 lead, Boone removed Tanaka after six innings largely because the Astros started to work longer at-bats in the sixth inning, and because he has a significant third time through the lineup split. Tanaka's OPS allowed during the regular season went from .637 to .730 to .943 each time through the lineup, though you could argue those numbers are irrelevant given the way he threw the ball in Game 1. Boone wasn't taking any chances though. He went to his vaunted bullpen.

One dominant start -- and one ALDS sweep -- does not erase the concerns about New York's rotation. Those concerns have yet to manifest themselves on the field, however, and Tanaka again looked like a bona fide postseason star Saturday. He helped the Yankees take homefield advantage away from the Astros, and now Paxton and Severino will try to follow suit in Games 2 and 3.

"Obviously the number's there and I guess I'm flattered," Tanaka said regarding his postseason performance following Game 1. "But the happiest thing for me is us being able to get the W. And knowing that you went out there and you gave everything you had, that's the feeling that you're looking for. And so that's kind of where I'm at with that."

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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