For unpredictability, try Cubs beating Tanaka
Team with fewest wins in Majors ends Yanks righty's 42-start undefeated streak
CHICAGO -- Turns out that Masahiro Tanaka can bleed.
And that the Cubs can slice up one of the greatest pitchers in the world.
You saw this coming, right?
Baseball's unpredictable nature is one of the reasons it gives us such pleasure, and Tanaka's first loss in Major League Baseball was one of those occasions. It even came with special effects in the sky, as thunder and lightning rolled through the Midwest but somehow did not disturb the events at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs beat Tanaka by a 6-1 score, knocking the Yankees from first place in the American League East.
The Yankees were feeling cozy on Tuesday afternoon, settling into the ancient visiting clubhouse for the first game in a rare Chicago double. They'll be in town through Sunday, facing the White Sox in a four-game series after this quick Interleague set ends Wednesday, and had Tanaka going for his 35th consecutive regular-season victory.
Derek Jeter was all smiles before the pregame ceremony in which the Cubs presented him with a scoreboard panel bearing "2'' on it.
"I like Chicago,'' said Jeter, who grew up in nearby Kalamazoo, Mich. "I've always enjoyed coming here. Besides baseball, my family used to come here on vacation when I was growing up. I think it's going to be nice being here for a week. I don't mind it at all.''
Ditto Joe Girardi, the Yankees' manager from Peoria, Ill., who attended Northwestern University and started his career with the Cubs. His mother-in-law was in his party on Tuesday.
"It's nice,'' Girardi said. "I wish we could do this more often, stay in a place for a week. It's a great part of our schedule.''
Just one little problem: The Yankees would fall victim to what oddsmakers call the reverse lock -- a situation that seems too good to be true, and turns out to be exactly that.
The Cubs used a smart game plan drawn up by hitting coaches Bill Mueller and Mike Brumley to do to Tanaka what teams like the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles, Brewers, Angels and Mets couldn't -- hand him his first regular-season loss since Aug. 19, 2012, when the Seibu Lions defeated his Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Not that Tanaka felt like they'd done anything special when it was over, after he'd allowed four runs on eight hits and one walk in six innings. He told reporters that he had felt off warming up in the bullpen and didn't have command of his pitches throughout the 88-pitch outing, which included 63 strikes. The problem, he felt, was his location within the strike zone.
"I think all my balls, my pitches, went to a location which was easy for the batters to hit,'' Tanaka said through his interpreter.
Tanaka had held the Cubs to two hits -- both bunt singles -- in eight scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium on April 16.
Watching those tapes again, the Cubs -- the first team to face Tanaka twice -- developed a plan of laying off as many low pitches as they could, according to manager Rick Renteria. He said it's almost impossible to tell if Tanaka is throwing fastballs or his devastating splitfinger pitch, the one that dives toward the dirt, so the plan was to attack the pitches that came in between the thighs and the waist.
That might be Baseball 101, but it's impressive when a team can execute it. The Cubs did that, with Luis Valbuena setting the tone. The left-handed hitter was 3-for-3 off Tanaka, with doubles into both corners of the outfield and a lined single over short that beat Girardi's shift.
Mike Olt, known for his home run/strikeout game, drove in runs with a hard single smashed past a drawn-in Jeter, a sacrifice fly and a bases-loaded walk. And it didn't even matter that the Cubs twice failed on attempts to bunt in runs, with Tanaka making plays to get two consecutive outs at the plate.
Even the weather cooperated in making this a night you couldn't see coming. It was 84 degrees at game time, but rain fell throughout the middle innings and, after a lull, came down in a downpour in the ninth. The wind, reported at 3 mph at the start of the game, gusted at times toward the ivy-covered walls, but the scoring was done as much with small ball as big flies.
The Yankees' rebuilt lineup and makeshift infield have been tested throughout the season, and the pitching depth they left Florida with didn't last long.
CC Sabathia's out at least until July, but the biggest concern at the moment is the health of right fielder Carlos Beltran. He visited Dr. James Andrews on Tuesday for a bone spur in his right elbow and was found to have no damage requiring immediate surgery. He'll try to start swinging a bat next week, and the significance of how he feels can't be overstated.
Girardi said that Beltran will probably have surgery if he can't manage the pain caused by the bone spur, with the potential recovery time estimated at eight to 10 weeks. That would put him behind Sabathia.
Because of his leadership and ability to deliver big hits, Beltran is one of those guys whose production goes beyond the daily stat lines. Ask the Cardinals, who are experiencing withdrawal symptoms after he departed as a free agent.
But about those daily stat lines. They tell their own story with Beltran.
Last season, the Cardinals were 40-17 in the regular season when he drove in a run, and 57-48 when he did not. Those numbers for the Yankees are 8-3 and 15-18. Add it up and that's 48-20 in the last two seasons when Beltran drives in runs, and 72-66 when he doesn't -- the difference between .706 and .522 when measured in terms of winning percentage.
Tanaka credited his teammates on the Golden Eagles and Yankees for helping him go 34-0 over his last 42 regular-season starts prior to Tuesday. The Yankees have firepower throughout their lineup, especially with veterans like Mark Teixeira and Jeter (2-for-4 with his first stolen base of the season Tuesday) contributing, but Tanaka will have his best chance to extend his next streak if he has Beltran, not Alfonso Soriano, in right field.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.