Yankees’ Opening Day goes terribly wrong in a hurry

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The ace got spanked. The Baby Bombers bombed. The veteran DH looked like Alex Rodriguez by going hitless in four at-bats and striking out twice. All while owner Hal Steinbrenner looked on.

Welcome to the Yankees’ Opening Day, which began with an ocean of optimism and ended in a sea of stench.

“Obviously disappointed in the loss today,’’ Brett Gardner said of Sunday’s 7-3 defeat to the Rays in front of a sold-out Tropicana Field crowd of 31,042. “But it’s one game and come back Tuesday and try to get even with them.’’

Disappointing is one way of describing the Yankees’ sixth straight (club record) Opening Day loss. Ugly is another.

Staff ace Masahiro Tanaka, who is working in the front of a rotation swimming in questions, was spanked for seven runs and eight hits in 2 ²/₃ innings. He gave up a two-run homer to Evan Longoria in the second and a solo blast to Logan Morrison in the third.

“Today, he wasn’t as sharp as he usually is,’’ catcher Gary Sanchez said of Tanaka, who required 67 pitches to record eight outs. “He didn’t have command of his pitches.’’

The heralded trio of Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Sanchez went 1-for-13 overall, 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-7 with runners on base. The lone hit was Judge’s RBI double off Chris Archer in the second, when the Yankees cut the Rays’ lead to 3-2. That swelled to 5-2 in the second and 7-2 in the third, when Tanaka was removed by Joe Girardi.

Sanchez made a throwing error in the third that helped the Rays score three runs. In the three-run first, Bird turned a ground-ball out into a single when the ball spilled out of his glove.

Matt Holliday, Rodriguez’s replacement, didn’t make an impact.

Down five in the seventh, the Yankees had a chance against Archer and with Sanchez batting. With the bases loaded and two outs, the catcher had a chance to reward Girardi for hitting him second. But he hit a hard grounder to short and stranded three.

Archer celebrated leaving the bases juiced in the seventh with several fist pumps so hard that he lost his hat near the first-base line going to the dugout. In seven frames, the right-hander allowed two runs and seven hits.

The Yankees loaded the bases again in the ninth and scored a run on Chris Carter’s sacrifice fly, but it was far from enough.

“We missed some chances to score runs. We fell behind early. We gave them seven runs in the first three innings and it’s tough to come back from that,’’ said Gardner, who had a two-out single in the seventh to give Sanchez a big chance. “Saw a few good things today but overall we didn’t play well enough. We got out-pitched and out-hit.’’

Considering there is inexperience and veterans who Gardner said “need to be better than last year” and a suspect rotation the Yankees are going to get out-hit at times. However, when Tanaka starts the Yankees aren’t used to getting out-pitched.

“From Day 1 of spring training, I was looking forward to this day and obviously wanted to go out there and give a strong performance,’’ said Tanaka, who didn’t give up a spring-training run until his sixth and final start. “But I wasn’t able to do that today.’’

Perhaps it was a case of Opening Day nerves, which Tanaka mentioned. Or a mechanical flaw that affected his signature splitter.

Whatever the reason, it was one element of a soiled Opening Day that began with optimism about Tanaka pitching and the Trinity of Youth hitting. Instead, long before the sun slipped into the Gulf of Mexico, the Yankees were mopping up Tanaka’s mess.

Masahiro Tanaka / Getty Images

Yankees Stumble Out of the Gate Again and Fall to the Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Along with the pomp, the circumstance and the red-white-and-blue bunting that accompany the start of the baseball season, the Yankees are have established their own opening-day tradition: laying an egg.

The Yankees lost their sixth consecutive season opener on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Rays rocked Masahiro Tanaka and the heart of the Yankees’ order got off to the meekest of starts in a 7-3 defeat at Tropicana Field.

The loss means little over the course of a six-month season, but it did quickly wash away the warm feelings the Yankees had established in posting the best spring training record in team history, winning 24 of 33 games.

“It doesn’t matter who you are — young, old — it’s always good to get off to a good start and get some confidence and momentum going,” said Matt Holliday, the designated hitter who arrived as a free agent from St. Louis.

For that, the Yankees will have to wait another 48 hours until they return here on Tuesday night.

The last two years, the Yankees have looked unprepared for the curtain to rise on the season. Two years ago, Didi Gregorius was thrown out trying to steal third with his team far behind. Last year, Dellin Betances bungled a throw to first base that led to a loss.

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But for the last six weeks, the Yankees have looked full of promise as young hitters who are being counted on, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird, shone and Tanaka, who seemed to have put elbow worries beside him last season, dominated.

“You saw the type of spring that we had, and you want it to carry over as we move onto the season,” Manager Joe Girardi said before the game. “You know that everyone starts fresh. The records, spring training — that gets wiped away. But I really like where our club was at the end of spring training.”

If it is a fool’s errand to use spring training as a predictor of future performance, Exhibit A would be Tanaka. He allowed just one run in 23 ⅔ innings during spring training, and on Saturday he said he was further along than he had been in previous seasons. A day later, he had one of the worst starts of his major league career.

He lasted just two and two-thirds innings — the second-shortest start of his career and the only time he has failed to last five innings since opening day two years ago. He equaled career highs by allowing seven runs, six of them earned, and lost for the first time in nine career starts against the Rays.

Tanaka thrives when his fastball is at the knees because the two pitches that work off it — his slider and his splitter — both have deceptive late movement. “If he’s down in the zone, if he’s locating his fastball, he’s tough,” Rays first baseman Logan Morrison said before the game. “As a hitter, you want him to get the ball up.”

Tanaka obliged, and the Rays, who were sixth in the majors in home runs last season, feasted. Evan Longoria lined a hanging splitter just over the chest-high wall down the left-field line for a two-run homer in the second, and Morrison hit a belt-high fastball over the wall in right for a solo homer that gave the Rays a 6-2 lead in the third.

By then, the Rays did not even need to hit the ball hard. They added their final run as Tim Beckham doubled and scored when Sanchez bounced Mallex Smith’s bunt into the bullpen down the right-field line.

Yankees desperately need Tanaka’s excuse to be legitimate

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Masahiro Tanaka, honorary Baby Bomber?

No, the Yankees’ veteran starting pitcher didn’t join Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge in sporting an Opening Day faux hawk at Tropicana Field. Yet at the conclusion of their 7-3 loss to the Rays, their franchise-record sixth straight defeat in a season opener, it was Tanaka, 28 years old and partaking in his third pinstriped kickoff, who uttered (through an interpreter) these surprising words:

“Looking back, just because it was the first game of the season, maybe I was a bit hyped up. I feel like I just didn’t have good control over myself.”

Hence Yankees fans received an ultra-quick reminder concerning their team’s tightrope-navigating mission: The Yankees’ season can still be a success, lowercase letters, even if Tanaka can’t match the new standard he established for himself last year. Judge, who doubled home the club’s first run of 2017, and Sanchez, who went 0-for-5, can blossom, as can Greg Bird and Luis Severino and many guys who currently work in the minor leagues.

However, can it be a full-blown SUCCESS, a developing club that qualifies for the postseason, without Tanaka pitching like an ace in his potential walk year? That, friends, is quite difficult to envision no matter how open-minded and analytical you consider yourself.

Tanaka, coming off a brilliant spring training in which he compiled a 0.38 ERA in six games totaling 23 ²/₃ innings, put together one of the worst starts of his major-league career. He lasted just 2 ²/₃ innings, his second-shortest outing, while setting a personal nadir by allowing seven earned runs. He threw 23 pitches just to get out of the first inning, in which he gave up three runs to the home team, and after the Yankees bit back with two in the top of the second, the right-hander surrendered two in the second and two more in the third. Even as the Yankees’ bullpen quieted down the Rays, the Yankees failed to capitalize sufficiently on seventh- and ninth-inning rallies, ensuring Tanaka would get tagged with a deserving loss.

“There are going to be days when you don’t have your great stuff,” manager Joe Girardi said. “But usually, because of his command, he can find a way to get through it. Today he didn’t have his command, either. It’s hard to figure out. It’s one game. Don’t make too much of it. Back to work on Saturday [against the Orioles in Baltimore].”

“He’s usually very good at having a couple of pitches to go to if something else isn’t working,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “But today, because command-wise overall he was off, he really had nowhere to go.”

Rothschild mentioned Tanaka’s velocity was “up a little bit,” and the PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball substantiated that assessment. Tanaka’s four-seam fastball and splitter, which lacked its proper bite, both registered about a mile an hour faster than last year’s norms (90.6 and 86.6 mph respectively, as per FanGraphs). That would mitigate some of the concerns about the next question that ultimately arises whenever Tanaka throws a dud. The man with the slight tear of the UCL in his right elbow insisted that his arm felt fine.

“It’s tough,” Tanaka said. “From Day 1 of spring training, I was looking forward to this day. And I just wanted to go out there and make a strong performance, but I just wasn’t able to do it.”

“You get concerned about everybody, no matter what,” Rothschild said. “He’s really good at self-correcting and straightening things out. I think he’ll get back on it pretty quickly.”

Can the Yankees do the same with veterans CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda finishing out this series? This team’s starting rotation behind Tanaka promotes little confidence. This starting rotation’s long-term future, with Tanaka owning an opt-out upon the completion of this campaign, features far more confusion than clarity.

Hence the importance of this opener winding up as a Tanaka aberration. With all the hype surrounding this youth movement, the Yankees must hope their most reliable starter suffered a surprising case of curtain-opening jitters and nothing more.

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