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Yankees Hanging by the Thread of Masahiro Tanaka’s Elbow

Masahiro Tanaka was arguably the only thing keeping the Yankees alive in the AL East. If he’s out long-term, the Yankees’ slim playoff hopes may be no more.

Masahiro Tanaka
Masahiro Tanaka

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are already hanging in there by a few threads and now Masahiro Tanaka, their biggest thread, is dangling in the vortex of an MRI tube that will require a long flight to Seattle first.

The news had to hit Yankee fans and the Yankees like a ton of bricks when they found out that Tanaka was headed back to New York. Now the tension escalates as the Yankees await for Tanaka to reach Seattle and the MRI tube there since his injury is happening at the same time as an orthopedic doctor convention.

The second you hear elbow in a pitcher, no matter his experience, shuddering thoughts go through a team. That’s the feeling for the Yankees, who have remained in striking distance despite losing three-fifths of their rotation to long-term injuries and while many are wondering when the shoe will drop out for a fragile team that before, starting 5-2 on this road trip, had dropped nine of 11 games.

Three is tough enough but losing a fourth for any period of time beyond the 15 days and whatever extra week Tanaka takes would be devastating for the Yankees. Especially since they’re within striking distance mostly due to Tanaka’s six-pitch arsenal and strong relief pitching from the back of the bullpen.

Tanaka has lost three of his last four starts and didn’t pitch well in the one game he won. Going back to Mike Napoli‘s home run on June 28, Tanaka has allowed 10 runs and 20 hits in the last 13 2/3 innings.

Maybe it was the league knowing him a little more or the fact that his elbow was barking loudly to cause enough pain. The Yankees are hoping – no, praying – that it’s about the league getting better acclimated with him now that there’s more video available.

The thought about the Yankees is that they’re not very good on the four other days he doesn’t pitch. The next thought is what would happen if Tanaka is lost for any extended period of time but until you know what the MRI says, if you’re the Yankees, all sorts of fears go through your mind.

At the best, it could be a two or three-start absence since the All-Star break essentially offers four free days for the Yankees. At the worst, it’s longer and an already tenuous grip on being over .500 gets even worse.

For now the Yankee rotation is Brandon McCarthy, Hiroki Kuroda, Shane Greene, David Phelps and possibly Chase Whitley. That’s a group that isn’t likely to provide the distance Tanaka often goes, which means there’s more work for David Robertson, Adam Warren and Dellin Betances, a trio that has combined for 101 appearances spanning 133 innings through Wednesday.

That workload is because Yankee starters have pitched 33 innings after the seventh inning this season.  The other pitchers have not rebounded from allowing early runs like Tanaka has when he gets rolling after an early home run.

The preseason talk about the Yankees was a strong rotation and then one by one the dominoes began falling with elbow, shoulder, and knee issues. Now they hold their breath and hope it’s not a full-scale toppling with the results of Tanaka’s MRI.

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