AAA  Jul. 12, 2014 8:00 AM ET
Bob Klapisch: Masahiro Tanaka will be back, but will he be same?
By Bob Klapisch, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)
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It’s hard not to feel sorry for Masahiro Tanaka, who responded to a catastrophic elbow injury by apologizing to Yankees fans. It speaks to the Japanese pitcher’s sense of honor, and if mental toughness counted for anything, there’d be reason for hope over the next six weeks.

Chances are, however, no amount of willpower will keep Tanaka from undergoing Tommy John surgery. He has a partially torn ligament that must be aggressively repaired and it’s only a matter of time before he and the Yankees’ battery of doctors relent.

Of course, Tanaka is entitled to try rest, rehab and platelet-rich plasma therapy first; it’s his body, the timetable will be of his choosing. Matt Harvey, who suffered a similar partial UCL tear last year, was also in denial about surgery until he finally caved, admitting he couldn’t stop worrying about a complete rupture.

Tanaka should follow Harvey’s path. If he wants to protect his elbow, not to mention his career, he’ll stop waiting for a miracle and undergo this reconstructive procedure.

The good news is that 83 percent of pitchers who do, return to full health, according to a recent survey. The bad news is that Tanaka will miss the rest of this season and, if he insists on waiting until September for the surgery, will spend all of 2015 rehabbing as well. The Yankees, who are 33-41 in non-Tanaka-pitched games this year, are almost certainly cooked without him. But there’s a bigger concern on the other side of this operation, as well.

And that is: will Tanaka ever be the same pitcher?

That’s one question the doctors cannot answer, even with the procedure’s growing success rate. The reason for the uncertainty is Tanaka’s heavy reliance on the splitter, the very pitch that likely frayed his ulnar collateral ligament over time. No one knows what effect the wide grip will have on Tanaka’s rebuilt arm, because so little research has been done on the pitch itself.

One major league executive said on Friday: “Everything else — fastball, slider, cutter, curveball, changeup — has been analyzed by the biometrics people. We know for a fact the change-up does the least damage. But the splitter, we just don’t know, so if you’re asking me about Tanaka, I seriously doubt the Yankees have any idea.”

Indeed, Brian Cashman admitted the team’s only real strategy is a tight crossing of the fingers.

“We hope we get the same player back, but obviously there’s no guarantee,” the general manager said. “At this point we’re hoping [Tanaka] doesn’t have surgery, but if does, we’ll deal with the challenge.”

It’s hard to imagine Tanaka weaning himself off the splitter; it’s his signature weapon, not unlike Harvey’s slider in its ability to generate swings and misses. But only Tanaka knows if he’ll ever be able to throw the split again with full confidence, if he’ll return to the Yankees — this season or in 2015 or 2016 — jamming the ball quite as deep between his index and middle fingers.

It’s possible Tanaka will grip his splitter more conservatively around the narrow seams, the way Roger Clemens and David Cone did. Or maybe he’ll just use it less frequently, scale back from the insane 25 percent ratio this year.

But without that splitter, Tanaka’s next best assets are the fastball and slider — both well-above average in velocity and movement, but both are “hittable for sure” said one talent evaluator, who added, “his fastball is straight and he throws it up in the [strike] zone.”

Without the splitter to act as a counter-balance, Tanaka is more vulnerable, easier to take deep. When he was even just slightly out of sync in the past two weeks, major league hitters appeared to crack the code. After allowing Mike Napoli a ninth-inning home run on June 28, Tanaka was pummeled for 20 hits and 10 runs in 13+ innings.

To a man, the Yankees say they had no idea Tanaka’s arm was deteriorating, that he volunteered nothing until Wednesday morning after a subpar performance against the Indians. If Tanaka was even partially damaged by the 1,315 career innings he threw in Japan by his age-24 season, it was news to the front office and the doctors who examined him last January.

This much is certain, though: Tanaka will pour himself into the rehab prescribed by the orthopedists, who insist Tommy John can be avoided. It’s a long shot, but not impossible, at least if Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana, both of whom pitched for years with partial UCL tears, can serve as role models.

In the meantime, Cashman is doing his best to find a replacement for Tanaka, and to keep the Yankees from spiraling downhill. The GM is not oblivious to the sense of gloom that hovers over the Yankees’ fan base. Plenty of ticket buyers have resigned themselves to waiting for 2015. After all, how many pitchers can fall to the wayside before finally admitting it’s not your year?

Cashman exhaled when asked if the season can still be salvaged.

“I have to approach the every day the same way we did before we lost [Tanaka],” he said. “We have a new challenge, but hopefully this creates a new opportunity for someone like Shane Greene.”

That’s what general managers are supposed to say publicly in times of crisis. The real Cashman is frantically working the phones, looking for someone, anyone, who can help, starting with Jeff Francis, whom the Yankees acquired from the A’s on Friday.

It’s not enough, of course. But the dog days are coming and the Yankees might be without Tanaka for a very long time. It’s hardly a comforting thought.

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©2014 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

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