How a resurgent Tanaka really can help Yankees in October

SEATTLE — If any Yankees fans remained paranoid that their team would somehow stumble out of the playoffs altogether, Friday night’s contest at Safeco Field provided considerable reassurance on that front.

With that out of the way, let’s puncture another outsized worry: Don’t sweat who starts the American League wild-card game. The bigger concern should be whether the Yankees have the rotation strength to withstand the Red Sox in the AL Division Series.

If Masahiro Tanaka can continue his current groove for another few weeks, that will be one giant leap for such an initiative.

Tanaka threw eight shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 4-0 blanking of the Mariners, boosting their wild-card lead over Seattle to a commanding 10 games and lowering the Yankees’ magic number for clinching a playoff berth to 12.

The right-hander, once the team’s ace and perhaps en route to being so again, walked none and struck out 10 as he allowed only three hits, and he has posted a 2.65 ERA over his last 10 starts, totaling 65 innings, with 66 strikeouts against 11 walks and only six homers.

“He’s really started to lock it in,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He was in complete command out there tonight.”

Before the game, Boone, asked about determining his starting pitcher in the Yankees’ likely Oct. 3 wild-card game against Oakland (who beat the Rangers, remaining 3 ½ games, four in the loss column, behind the Yankees), said, “The next few weeks will tell us who the guy is.”

I say, let’s think bigger. Tanaka? J.A. Happ? Luis Severino? You can make a case for any of them to get the wild-card assignment, and sure, the better that guy pitches, the less it taxes the Yankees’ bullpen and therefore optimizes their chances to defeat the Red Sox in the AL Division Series.

Nevertheless, Joe Girardi showed last year that these Yankees, with a deep supply of power bats in the lineup and power arms in the bullpen, can overcome a bad start (Severino’s, against the Twins) in the loser-goes-home contest as long as the manager behaves proactively enough and gives the guy the hook. The Yankees’ lineup and relievers remain powerful assets, especially if Aaron Judge can heal his fractured right wrist in time, so it’ll be on Boone to start bullpenning as soon as necessary in their playoff opener.

You can’t bullpen your way through a series, however, so at least two starting pitchers, realistically, must contribute a respectable blend of length and competence. Think of how Tanaka (seven shutout innings in Game 3) and Severino (three runs in seven innings in Game 4) excelled to lead the Yankees’ comeback over the Indians and preserve the bullpen in the process. When Severino faltered against the Astros in the AL Championship Series, even as Tanaka continued to excel, the Yankees could no longer survive.

Tanaka sure is excelling right now, even as he characteristically dismissed a correlation between his September efforts and what’s to come in October.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead,” he said through an interpreter. “I think it’s really important to just focus on the game at hand. So that’s the mentality right now. I’ll make adjustments going into next game and I’ll be efficient.”

Friday marked his first start since the Angels announced the recommendation that Japanese rookie Shohei Ohtani undergo Tommy John surgery on his damaged right elbow, and Tanaka reminded us how remarkably he has performed in the over four years since he first learned of a partial tear in his pitching elbow’s UCL.

Two-run homers by Gleyber Torres (in the second inning) and newcomer Andrew McCutchen (in the third) gave him all the run support he needed. And he worked through his only jam, as two Mariners reached base in the sixth, by striking out Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger and, on a nasty slider, former Yankee Robinson Cano. Boone made sure to also credit Tanaka’s batterymate Gary Sanchez, whose defensive struggles have generated some discussion.

“I didn’t have my best stuff,” Tanaka insisted afterward. This quality of stuff, though, can keep the Yankees afloat against the monstrous Red Sox offense. So can Happ and Severino if they approach their best, and you never count out CC Sabathia from fighting his way through two turns of any lineup.

A night like this called for the Yankees and their jittery fan base to push aside their worst-case scenarios and dream on what could be. It could work out. If it’s not the most likely outcome, it’s within the realm of possibility. All the more so if their call to arms gets resounding answers like Tanaka’s.

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