Shawn Kelley looked at the scoreboard and saw the Cubs had one hit in the fifth inning. Last year, he might have been looking at none.
Masahiro Tanaka certainly had no-hit caliber stuff Wednesday as he allowed two bunt singles — the first only after a replay review — and struck out 10 in eight dominant innings in a 3-0 victory over the Cubs in the opener of a day-night doubleheader.
“About the fifth or the sixth when they had the one bunt hit they overturned. I said, 'Man, I didn’t even realize it.' He [might have] actually had a no-hitter going,” Kelley said. “Who knows what happens if they don’t [review it] but his overall outing today was special. It was no-hit quality.”
It was in the second that Junior Lake bunted a 2-1 sinker back to Tanaka. Tanaka made a few steps off the mound and had to make an off-balance throw that first base umpire Manny Gonzalez initially ruled to be an out. But when the Cubs challenged, it was overturned.
Rizzo was retired on 93 mph fastballs in his previous two at-bats, so he tried to bunt into the shift as third baseman Scott Sizemore was playing way too deep to make a play.
In between bunt hits, Tanaka retired 14 in a row, getting six strikeouts, three groundouts and five fly balls or line drives.
“He was really good today, there’s no doubt about it,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He didn’t give up a lot of hits and had really good command.”
Tanaka threw 107 pitches in the outing. He has thrown 212 strikes this season and 305 pitches in three starts.
Tanaka has a 69.5 percent strike rate. It’s a number that when it was presented to Kelley didn’t necessarily surprise him but sort of wowed him.
“My reaction is that he has that good of stuff that he doesn’t have to throw a lot of balls because he can throw pitches in the zone,” Kelley said. “That’s how good he is. I know it’s early but he’s special.”
Replay reviews and infield positioning aside, Tanaka was even better than his previous two starts. He avoided allowing a home run in the opening innings and the 43-degree temperature hardly fazed him.
“It was cold out there and I did feel it,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “But I was able to control myself and manage the grip.”
By controlling the grip through cool weather, Tanaka was able to throw 29 of 38 sinkers for strikes and 22 of 29 splitters in the strike zone.
“He had a really good feel for the split-finger,” pitching coach Larry Rothchild said. “With right-handed hitters the ones he throws down and away are not hittable. With his ability to throw the fastball and locate it — and he can do a lot with two strikes — you can’t just sit on that one pitch. He’s not going to throw the split just with two strikes. He’s going to throw his other pitches.”
He threw 19 first-pitch strikes and generated 16 swings and misses, with six coming on swings and misses.
Tanaka has now struck out 28 hitters in his first three starts and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the most by any Yankee in his first three starts. The previous mark was 25 set in 1987 by current Yankee announcer Al Leiter.
He also is the first Yankee to pitch at least eight scoreless innings, strike out at least 10 and allow two or fewer hits since Randy Johnson on July 26, 2005. Johnson struck out 11 against the Twins and allowed the same number of hits.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.