Masahiro Tanaka was very effective in his spring training debut

Masahiro Tanaka pitching during spring training.

Masahiro Tanaka pitching during spring training.

On Thursday night, Masahiro Tanaka had a promising first start of spring training. The Yankees ended up beating the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, and he threw two perfect innings, striking out a pair and getting four weak ground balls. He only threw one ball out of his 19 pitches and didn’t allow a ball to get out of the infield.

Tanaka, who had an outstanding 2.77 ERA in 20 starts last season, easily made it through his two innings of work and it was decided that he would throw about 15 more pitches in the bullpen to get up to his pitch count. In his first two innings in a game since allowing five earned runs in 1.2 innings to the Red Sox in his final start of the season, he threw 15 out of his 19 pitches for strikes. He pitched like he did last season when he was the ace of the staff when healthy.

“He made it look easy,” Joe Girardi said. Girardi also thought that the four groundouts that he allowed were a positive because the defense will be very reliable at every position this season. Mark Teixeira, Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley are all elite defensively and Stephen Drew will be getting better everyday at second. According to Marly Rivera, an AL scout categorized Tanaka’s splitter as excellent and said that his fastball velocity was down in the second inning to 88-89 mph.

This is a positive sign because Tanaka came away feeling back to normal with his splitter working just like it did last season. He said after the game that he was not even thinking about the partially torn UCL while he was pitching. He will likely pitch three or four innings during his next appearance. Tanaka, who missed 2.5 months last season, will have to stay healthy the whole season for the Yankees to make the playoffs and this is the first step in his doing so.

Gregorius hit a triple to the warning track in left center and was safe after diving into the home plate side of third. He was hustling the whole time and would score the Yankees’ first run on Brett Gardner’s fielders choice. Scott Baker relieved Tanaka and pitched the third and fourth innings. He pitched a perfect third and fourth inning and even though he isn’t on the 40-man roster Girardi said during the game that he is a candidate to be the 5th starter based on his experience and ability to throw strikes.

The other two runs were driven in by an up-and-coming prospect and a minor league free agent that the Yankees signed. Jake Cave, who is an outfield prospect that hit .294 between high-A and Double-A last season, hit a ground rule double to center in the seventh to tie the game at two. Nick Noonan, who gives the Yankees Triple-A infield depth and could be the shortstop at Scranton after previously playing in the Giants organization, would later hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Jose Pirela for the team’s third and final run.

Also on Thursday, the other Yankees starter with injury question marks, CC Sabathia, had his first simulated game of the spring. The six-time All-Star had a 5.28 ERA in eight starts last season and missed most of the campaign due to right knee inflammation. The Yankees need him to be able to pitch 200 innings this season.

He is healthy and is one step closer to doing that as he threw 29 pitches in his sim game while mixing in some changeups, cutters and sliders. Girardi said that he was pleased with the movement on his pitches and that he will pitch in a game next week. Thursday was the most important and significant day of spring training so far for the Yankees because Sabathia and Tanaka were both effective in their respective performances.

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