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Masahiro Tanaka returns to the mound and feels ‘back to normal’ for Yankees after concussion scare

2020-07-25

Before he threw live batting practice Tuesday, Masahiro Tanaka had a moment where he thought back to the last time he faced hitters. It was July 4 and Tanaka had already faced two batters when Giancarlo Stanton stepped in. Seconds later, Tanaka was on the ground holding his head after being hit by a line drive with a 112-mile per hour exit velocity.

So, Tuesday was a test. Not just a physical test of how Tanaka has healed from his “mild concussion” and is building up to return to action, but also a test of how he would feel out there facing hitters again.

“It actually crossed my mind for the first pitch. But after I threw that, it was back to business,” Tanaka said through interpreter Shingo Horie. “Back to normal.”

That was the best the Yankees and Tanaka could hope for. He showed no hesitations facing hitters again and threw 20 pitches against the likes of DJ LeMahieu and Thairo Estrada. That means that Tanaka can now begin a normal five-day throwing program that could have him rejoin the team for a start July 31, when the Yankees face the Red Sox for the first time this season in the Bronx.

With that said, the Yankees are still going to need to fill a start with Tanaka out. That very well could go to Mike King, the rookie who Yankee manager Aaron Boone said Tuesday will make the 30-man roster out of camp.

“I feel like he’s in a great spot right now. I feel like he’s thrown the ball really well, I feel like he has a chance to really impact our club this year,” Boone said. “So excited about that.”

Boone indicated King could make a start after Gerrit Cole on Thursday and James Paxton on Saturday. To close out the series against the Nationals, Boone said King could be in the group for a bullpen day on Sunday. Rounding out the rotation will be J.A. Happ on July 27 in Philadelphia. After optioning Jordan Montgomery to the alternate training site in Scranton on Tuesday, the Yankees could bring him back to pitch the sixth game, the home opener July 29.

The two other candidates who were pitching for a chance to make the team, Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt, were sent to Scranton to stay ready as part of the taxi squad. Garcia proved he still has a lot to learn this spring, but Schmidt opened eyes. Though he isn’t on the 40-man roster, Boone raved about his camp.

“What we saw in spring training and what we’ve seen here now in summer camp, he’s been excellent and was excellent again today,” Boone said. “I feel like, for a guy that hasn’t had a lot of minor league experience, he’s pretty polished too. So hopefully he’ll go down there and continue to develop and pitch and he’s very much in the conversation to be with us at some point this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was and not only if he was, but he’s played an important role for us.”

Tanaka came into this spring penciled in as the Yankees’ third starter. He is perhaps their most proven big-game starter, so getting him back is important. Tuesday was a huge step.

“Being back on the mound and being able to pitch, without a doubt it was a big step forward for me,” Tanaka said. “Obviously, it tells me that I am progressing in the right direction.”

It wasn’t just getting back on the mound and facing hitters. Boone said Tanaka’s pitches looked good.

“I thought he was strong; fastball had life to it. I thought this stuff was pretty good,” Boone said. “And I thought it was just an important step of obviously getting back out there and facing hitters. I think he ended up throwing 20 pitches so I was really encouraged by what I saw. Now he’ll go on his five day and the plan will be for him to throw a bullpen in between obviously and then throw in Scranton. Hopefully gets up to 30, 35 to 40 pitches and then to potentially be in a position to, to join us.”

Tanaka was cautiously optimistic that he could be back in the rotation by then, missing just one start.

“I think that all depends on how I do in the next live BP. If everything comes out OK, I should be ready to go,” Tanaka said. “But I think it all depends on how I progress at that point and the actual live BP that’s coming next.”