All of the anticipation for the three-game weekend series between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels had centered on the scheduled pitching matchup between Masahiro Tanaka and Shohei Ohtani, the two-way rookie sensation who has been called the Japanese Babe Ruth.
But after Angels Manager Mike Scioscia announced that Ohtani would not start in the series finale at Yankee Stadium, Sunday’s game instead produced a more conventional meeting between Tanaka, the Yankees’ starting pitcher, and Ohtani, the Angels’ designated hitter.
But anyone who had seen Saturday night’s game between the two teams, which was won by the Angels in an 11-4 rout, knew that the key matchup on Sunday might actually end up being between Tanaka and Mike Trout. It was Trout, after all, who had five hits for the Angels in Saturday’s contest, including a two-run home run, a performance that only enhanced his reputation as the best all-around player in baseball.
So while the face-off between Tanaka and Ohtani, which contributed to a sellout crowd of 46,000-plus, largely fizzled — Ohtani struck out twice and walked once in three plate appearances against Tanaka — the three at-bats involving Tanaka and Trout crackled with danger.
And unlike Saturday night, when Trout terrorized Yankees starter Sonny Gray, Tanaka won all three of those battles in the Yankees’ 3-1 victory.
The first matchup, coming in the first inning, set the tone for the rest of the game. It was a tense, 10-pitch standoff that ended with Trout foul-tipping a perfectly-located 94 mile-per-hour fastball into the glove of Gary Sanchez for the first of Tanaka’s eight strikeouts.
But that standoff easily could have ended otherwise. Halfway through the at-bat, Trout was visibly upset at fouling off a splitter that loitered tantalizingly over the middle of the plate.
“He’s always trying to keep you off balance, keep you honest,” said Trout, who came into the game with four hits in 10 previous at-bats against Tanaka. “He threw some good pitches and made his pitches.”
Trout’s second at-bat in the third inning was a little more dramatic: With the game still scoreless, two out and a runner on first, Trout jumped on a first-pitch fastball and sent it soaring into center field.
“I mean, he just killed that ball,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said.
Although the contact sounded solid, a strong wind gusting in toward home plate helped produce an inning-ending fly ball. Tanaka then needed just three pitches to neutralize Trout in his third plate appearance, catching him looking at a sharp splitter for the first out of the sixth inning.
“I know Mike a little bit just from covering him and I really like him,” said Boone, referring to his days as a television baseball analyst. “But I can’t stand seeing him walk up to the plate, I’ll tell you that much. I thought Masa did a good job of executing pitches against him.’’
For a team that, in the pregame words of Boone, planned to pitch “carefully” to Trout after Saturday night’s loss, it was a surprisingly in-your-face performance by Tanaka.
“I think the thing is, you do have to be careful with him,” Tanaka said of Trout. “But at the same time you have to be aggressive. And today I feel like I was able to do that.”
When Andrelton Simmons followed Trout’s second strikeout with a solo home run — which Tanaka called “unacceptable” — the adept handling of Trout by Tanaka took on greater importance. As it was, the Simmons home run shaved the Yankees’ lead to 3-1. New York’s runs had come quietly in a third-inning rally that included one single, a bases-loaded walk, a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch and an infield out that drove in a run.
In other words, in a game devoid of offensive highlights, the most dramatic moments were provided by Tanaka.
“This was definitely one of my better recent outings,” said Tanaka, who in four previous starts this month had allowed 14 earned runs in 21⅓ innings for an ugly 5.91 E.R.A. That Tanaka managed to win one of those games was attributable to a Yankees offense that produced 10 runs against the Texas Rangers in his most recent start.
Tanaka did not get nearly as much help on Sunday. Brett Gardner had three hits but Giancarlo Stanton, who continues to struggle at Yankee Stadium, struck out in all four of his plate appearances. The heart of the Yankees’ batting order — Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks and Greg Bird — went 1 for 16. The Yankees managed just five singles all game, although one of them, Aaron Judge’s hit leading off the third, was clocked at 119.9 m.p.h., the hardest-hit ball in the major leagues this season, according to Statcast.
But even that was a footnote on a day that belonged to Tanaka.
“We really needed an outing like that from him,” Boone said. And the Yankees got it.