TORONTO — The New York Yankees unveiled pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka on Friday night and the Japanese media was out in force to cover it.
A couple dozen Japanese reporters hovered near the Yankees dugout before the game and later sat in a packed Rogers Centre press box to watch the big-ticket right-hander make his major-league debut. Ratings were sure to be a hit in Japan even though the game started at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday in Tokyo.
"All Japanese media (outlets), maybe if they don’t have any (big) political or economic news, I think Tanaka will be in every headline today," said Yoshikazu Demura, a writer and broadcaster with Japan’s J Sports.
Tanaka, a 25-year-old right-hander, signed a US$155-million, seven-year contract with the Yankees in the off-season after leading Rakuten to a Japan Series title. The six-foot-two 205-pound native of Hyogo, Japan was 24-0 last season with a sparkling 1.27 earned-run average.
The first batter he faced in the big leagues did his best to spoil the debut.
Wearing a grey Yankees jersey with No. 19 on the back, Tanaka fired a 93 mile-per-hour fastball down the middle for a first-pitch strike. Melky Cabrera then took a slider for a ball before turning on a hanging change-up for a leadoff home run to right field.
Tanaka settled down after the shaky start and recorded his first win in the 7-3 victory. He allowed six hits, two earned runs and had eight strikeouts over seven innings.
Tanaka earned the Pacific League most valuable player award last year and also won a Gold Glove. He struck out 183 batters in 28 games and threw eight complete games with two shutouts.
"I think he is now the national hero definitely because of last year," Demura said. "It was so dramatic, his performance. Lots of people appreciate his performance and he was so exciting."
A Blue Jays spokesman estimated that over 100 credentials were issued to the entire Japanese media contingent.
"Not only baseball fans, I think many, many people want to know his pitching and the result today," Demura added of the interest level back home.
Tanaka was impressive during the spring training schedule, striking out 10 batters over six innings in a 3-0 win over Miami on March 29.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Tanaka appears to have adapted well since joining the team. He figured the biggest challenge early in the season would be the adjustment to pitching every five days instead of seven.
"Now over there, he probably threw more pitches per start than he would here," Girardi said before the game. "Maybe he would throw a little bit more in between starts than he could here. But it’s just getting used to training your body to do something different. He’s been going basically every seven days over there for a while."
The Yankees paid $20 million to Rakuten for Tanaka’s rights. Tanaka gave up five runs and struck out 26 batters over 21 innings in five pre-season games.
"We don’t know a whole lot about him," Jays manager John Gibbons said before the game. "We’ve seen a little bit on TV and videos. We haven’t faced him yet but for everything we’re hearing, all indications are he’s pretty damn good. Almost all of the Japanese pitchers who come over to pitch in the U.S., they’re all really good pitchers, they’re not just your average Joes."
"They’re all very good, so I don’t see why this would probably be any different," Gibbons added. "To accomplish what he did last year — to go undefeated — I don’t care what league you’re pitching in it’s pretty remarkable.
"The Yanks don’t miss on too many things. When they decide to go for something, they have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing."