A Hiro on two continents: Tanaka’s big-game success dates to high school

NEW YORK — It must take a lot of trust to commit $155 million to someone you’ve never actually seen at work.

Brian Cashman had only watched video of Masahiro Tanaka before the pitcher signed with the Yankees prior to the 2014 season. Instead of flying across the Pacific Ocean himself, the general manager relied on the eyes of his scouts, notably Trey Hillman, to get a feel for the Japanese superstar.

Once the manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters, Hillman was working as a special assistant to the Yankees at the time. He knew Tanaka as a dominant force from competing against him. When the right-hander opted to leave Japan for Major League Baseball, Cashman had all the info he needed.

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“We had extensive knowledge of him as a competitor and as a high-end pitcher, so we were in a good position when he made the decision to come [to America],” Cashman told Sporting News.

Four years later, the extravagant investment has paid off. Despite a turbulent 2017 season, Tanaka has stepped up in grand fashion in October with a possible opt-out looming. In two postseason starts, the 28-year-old has allowed just two earned runs to go along with seven hits and 10 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched.

As Tanaka prepares for his third outing this month — the Yankees will turn to him as they look to take a 3-2 lead over the Astros in the ALCS on Wednesday — some are surprised by the pitcher’s recent big-game success after such a messy regular season.

But one could argue that those folks just haven’t paid attention.

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“When he was pitching in Japan, he had a reputation that he doesn’t lose,” Jiji Press reporter Kotaro Okada told Sporting News, citing a long list of Tanaka’s accomplishments overseas.

Tanaka first burst onto the scene in Japan when he was a junior in high school. After deciding to attend Komazawa University Tomakomai High School — a two-hour flight from his hometown, Itami — the teenager found himself pitching in Summer Koshien, Japan’s annual high school baseball championship tournament.

“The only thing here [in America] I can compare Koshien to is NCAA March Madness. Everybody is rooting for their teams – schools from their city or hometown,” Okada said. “It’s the biggest stage for high school baseball players in Japan. Playing in Koshien is one of the goals for every high school player.”

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Tanaka shined in the tournament in 2005 and then again in 2006, pitching through intestinal inflammation. He entered the championship game in the third inning, offering 12.2 frames of one-run relief. When the game was called a 1-1 tie after 15 innings, it was replayed the very next day.

This time Tanaka entered in the first inning. He never left, allowing three runs. It was a brilliant performance on zero rest, but the senior’s team lost by one run.

While Tomakomai missed out on a championship, Tanaka picked up valuable experience.

“It's been over 10 years since I pitched in Koshien,” Tanaka said through an interpreter Tuesday while preparing for his second ALCS start. “What I can just tell you is that experience has helped me … become the pitcher that I am today.”

Tanaka would step on the big stage repeatedly between his Koshien days and coming to the Yankees.

After the 2006 season — in which he broke Daisuke Matsuzaka’s national high school strikeout record — Tanaka joined a national all-star team that traveled to the United States. Shortly thereafter, Tanaka was drafted into Nippon Professional Baseball, signing a multiyear deal with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

By 2008 he was pitching in the Beijing Olympics, hurling seven innings of one-run ball for Japan. He represented his homeland again in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, pitching in the semifinals for the eventual winners. He did so again in 2013 before embarking on the greatest season Japanese baseball has ever seen.

Tanaka went 24-0 in 27 starts in 2013, recording a 1.27 ERA before adding another two wins in the playoffs. In Game 6 of the Japan Series, the country’s equivalent to the World Series, Tanaka threw a complete game in Game 6, but he took the loss.

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No matter, though. Much like he did in high school, Tanaka came on the very next day to get the save in Game 7. This time his team prevailed.

That would be Tanaka’s last season in Japan. Having proved he could handle the spotlight, the Yankees felt comfortable he could transition to the United States.

“Baseball’s big in Japan, so he played on the biggest stage over there and had success,” Cashman said. “That certainly checks certain boxes for us as you wonder if someone can handle the pressure of New York. He handled the whole country, so it was an early indication that things could work out well here.”

Still, with all the performances back home and on the global stage, Tanaka said it is his experience in America that best prepared him for his past two postseason starts. After giving up two earned runs in the 2015 AL Wild Card game, Tanaka now knows what it takes to win in MLB’s postseason.

“I think you've gone through [pressure] in Japan, as well,” Tanaka said. “And obviously I am the pitcher that I am because of all the experience that I had in Japan. But I think the biggest thing is that I was able to experience the 2015 Wild Card game. I think having that experience under my belt has helped me pitch the way I'm pitching right now.”

Tanaka will look to repeat his last two outings in Game 5 of the ALCS. A win would put New York just one game from the World Series.

Cashman hopes his trust continues to pay off.

“Someone either can or can’t. From a very early age, he was different,” the general manager said of Tanaka. “He showed he could and he continues to show it on both sides of the world. So we’re lucky he picked us, we stepped up to pick him, and it’s worked out well thus far.”

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