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Masahiro Tanaka Delivers a Gem Just When the Yankees Needed It

TORONTO — Masahiro Tanaka watched from the dugout on Sunday afternoon, a towel around his neck and arms folded as he observed the final moments of the Yankees’ game against the Blue Jays. In a rotation with plenty of holes, he had just provided a much-needed reprieve.

No Yankees starting pitcher had tossed eight innings since Tanaka’s complete game on June 17. Only two had even managed to complete seven innings in that span, which featured historic lows for a Yankees pitching staff.

But after spinning eight stellar innings against the Toronto Blue Jays, Tanaka was a mere spectator in the biggest moment of the game in the ninth: Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees’ closer, facing the young Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. with the tying run on base.

After a 13-pitch at-bat — the longest of Chapman’s career — the closer bested Guerrero to secure the first-place Yankees’ 1-0 win over the Blue Jays. After the final out, Tanaka pumped his fist.

Because of the injuries and struggles of the rotation this season, the Yankees have leaned heavily on their relief corps, which has shown some cracks under the heavy workload. On Saturday, the Yankees didn’t use a traditional starting pitcher and relied solely on their bullpen. They will likely employ the same strategy in one of their two games against the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronx on Monday.

“We’re going through a long stretch of games right now,” said Tanaka, through an interpreter, referring to the team’s stretch of 19 games in 17 days. “Going into the game, you feel like you want to go longer.”

Tanaka certainly did. In the midst of a trying season defined by inconsistency, Tanaka saved the Yankees bullpen. Partly because of their usage of openers, the Yankees rotation entered Sunday averaging only 4.9 innings per start, the sixth lowest total in the major leagues.

ImageCreditCole Burston/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Yankees placed two relief pitchers on the injured list: Jonathan Holder, with inflammation in his throwing shoulder, and Stephen Tarpley, with an impingement in his throwing elbow. Those moves raised the team’s mind-boggling total to 27 players spending time on the I.L. this season.

If the game was close and Tanaka had not pitched so deep, Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said his options would have been Zack Britton and Chapman despite a 10-man bullpen, which included the additions of the rookies Joe Mantiply and Brady Lail on Sunday. The others had pitched recently or were needed for Monday.

Tanaka “was really pitch-efficient, especially in the middle innings,” Boone said. “He was really cruising. We needed it.”

In all, Tanaka fired 94 pitches. His trademark pitch, his split-finger fastball, saw more gradual improvement and produced several groundouts. He threw 36 sliders, his best pitch this season, and the Blue Jays whiffed at eight. Better command of his four-seam fastball also helped.

“When he’s got all of his pitches working, that’s the kind of outing you’ll get from him,” Yankees catcher Austin Romine said.

Tanaka surrendered only three hits. The first was in the first inning by the Blue Jays’ speedy leadoff batter, Bo Bichette, who beat out an infield single on a ground ball that Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela slightly bobbled. Urshela later made it up to Tanaka by robbing a hit with a diving play in the fourth inning.

Urshela also scored the game’s only run when he doubled in the fifth inning and Brett Gardner doubled him home. Shortstop Gleyber Torres, who missed nearly a week with an unspecified “core issue,” went 0 for 3 in his return to the lineup.

Tanaka did not allow his second hit until the eighth inning, a single by Justin Smoak.

Boone considered ending Tanaka’s day after eight innings, but he let him take the mound in the ninth with a pitch count at 91. After the first batter, Brandon Drury, singled, Boone called for the well-rested Chapman. Blue Jays Manager Charlie Montoyo countered with Guerrero.

“That was an excellent game,” Chapman said of Tanaka. “I thought he was going to toss a complete game, but they didn’t let him.”

Knowing Guerrero had a weakness up and in, Chapman jumped ahead to an 0-2 count, throwing fastballs of 97 and 98 miles per hour. Chapman then attacked Guerrero elsewhere. Guerrero fouled off seven pitches, including two 100 m.p.h. fastballs, to extend the at-bat.

“He made me work a lot,” Chapman said.

Chapman got Guerrero to hit the 13th pitch, a low, 100-m.p.h. fastball, into a double play. After a Bichette single, Chapman struck out Cavan Biggio to end the game. It was the first time this season the Yankees had won a game scoring two runs or fewer. And despite the tension, they needed only two pitchers to do so.

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