NEW YORK – The Twins went into Saturday’s Game 2 of the American League Division Series with no illusions about what they’d face in Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees starter who’s established a record of both mastery over the Twins and mettle in the postseason during his six major league seasons.
But the Twins’ working knowledge of how to handle the 30-year-old righthander amounted to little.
Tanaka represented the worst possible opponent for the Twins at the most inopportune time, beguiling a team that feasts on fastballs by taking his typical approach — one that leans heavily on off-speed pitches — to an even greater extreme during five innings of one-run ball in the Yankees’ 8-2 win in Game 2.
He threw just 16 four-seam fastballs among his 83 pitches on Saturday; the 19.2% clip was down from his 30.5% fastball rate during the regular season. The righthander threw his slider — his most effective pitch during his six major league seasons — on the first pitch to 10 of the 19 batters he faced, getting ahead in the count with it on five of those occasions.
It forced the Twins to try to hit breaking pitches or sinkers, rather than waiting on the four-seamers that wouldn’t come, and they were rarely able to do so with any force. They hit just two of Tanaka’s pitches hard: a groundout that left Max Kepler’s bat at 103.3 mph in the first inning, and an Eddie Rosario fourth-inning single that had an exit velocity of 99.6 mph.
“He threw  fastballs. We’re a good-hitting fastball team,” catcher Mitch Garver said. “He doesn’t leave too many off-speed pitches over the plate. We got runners on. Rosie hit a ball hard there, right to [D.J.] LeMahieu and he was able to turn that. Being able to scratch one on — I had a 3-1 splitter that was down and away, probably wasn’t even a strike. I broke my bat on it, but I had so much room on the right to scratch a run across. That’s what made it tough.”
Tanaka is 6-0 with a 2.21 ERA in his career against the Twins, who’ve never homered off him in 40 ⅔ innings. But in October, their frustration against him is becoming a familiar theme in the American League: Tanaka has allowed just six runs in his past 35 innings of postseason work, dating to his first start in the 2017 ALDS.
“He’s just really good at his craft,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He understands his body, his mechanics, can do a lot of things with the ball. I thought he threw some good split-[fingered fastballs]. The slider was a real factor for him. I saw him elevate the heater at times and gave us just what we needed.”
Should the Twins win their next two games at Target Field to force a Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, they could see Tanaka again — as a starter or out of the bullpen — in a park where he’s got a career 3.36 ERA.
For all the work before them — first to end a 12-game postseason losing streak against the Yankees, and then to win a Game 4 at Target Field to force the series to its limits — the fact Tanaka could be waiting for them again makes the task even more daunting.