Down 2-1 in ALCS, Yankees leaning on Tanaka's big-game experience


NEW YORK — Masahiro Tanaka would never say the student has become the master, but Yu Darvish would.

As Tanaka, the New York Yankees right-hander, prepares to take the mound Thursday night in a pivotal Game 4 against the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, Darvish knows his guidance is no longer necessary.

“If anything, Tanaka has posted better numbers in the postseason than myself, so I don’t think I have much advice to give him,” Darvish told ESPN. “It may be because his sense of personal responsibility is strong, and he competes with the mentality of going to kill his opponent.”

Tanaka — slated to start opposite Zack Greinke with the Yankees trailing the series 2-1 — has posted a 1.32 career ERA in the postseason, the third-lowest in history among pitchers with at least 40 innings (since earned runs became an official stat in 1913), with a 5-2 record in seven career starts. In six career postseason starts with the Rangers and Dodgers, Darvish is 2-4 with a 5.81 ERA.

This role reversal has been well over a decade in the making.

In 2004, Darvish, seen as Japan’s top high school pitcher after he threw a no-hitter in the country’s legendary Koshien tournament, was the No. 1 pick for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League in the first round of the amateur draft. Two years later, Tanaka would follow, becoming the Rakuten Golden Eagles’ first pick after his own standout high school career and Koshien performance.

Tanaka went 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA in his first season, winning the Pacific League’s top rookie award, the first pitcher to earn the honor out of high school since Japanese legend Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1999. But Tanaka’s numbers paled in comparison to those of Darvish, who posted a 15-5 record with a 1.82 ERA as a 20-year-old that season.

It was the start of a yearly on-field battle for the honor of being Japan’s best pitcher, and also the start of their senpai-kohai relationship. The expert and the novice. The master and the apprentice. The teacher and the student.

Darvish was the senpai, Tanaka the kohai.

Both won the Eiji Sawamura Award, given annually to the best pitcher in Japan, that country’s equivalent to the Cy Young. In 2011, at 22, Tanaka finished 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA to edge Darvish for his second Sawamura. He won it a day after pitching a complete game and striking out 12 batters in his Japan Series debut.

According to Darvish, Tanaka’s splitter already was the stuff of legend.

“I saw his splitter, as well as his control, were so off the charts I thought he would probably be successful in outer space, too,” Darvish said.

That same year, 2011, the Texas Rangers would pay a $51.7 million posting fee for the rights to sign Darvish. Tanaka would not be far behind.

Tanaka saved his best for what turned out to be his final season with the Golden Eagles in 2013. He was named the Nippon Professional Baseball League’s MVP after going a record-setting 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA. Including the postseason, his record that year was 30-1.

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