NEW YORK — Masahiro Tanaka took another positive step toward returning to help the New York Yankees make a run for a playoff berth, facing batters for the first time since he was sidelined six weeks ago with a partially torn right elbow ligament.
In front of several dozen reporters and photographers, the Japanese ace threw 35 pitches in a two-inning simulated game Saturday morning and reported no problems with his elbow. His control is expected to come later.
"I feel it's a little bit still rusty, but there were some good balls that I was able to throw," Tanaka said through a translator. "I want to keep moving forward."
Tanaka said he was cautious, thinking about his elbow with each toss, but it didn't prevent him from throwing all of his pitches, including his devastating splitter, while working against teammates Brendan Ryan and Zelous Wheeler.
After watching the 25-year-old right-hander from behind the mound, pitching coach Larry Rothschild said he thought Tanaka was on the right track. He felt his arm strength was good — about the same as it would be during spring training.
"I thought it was a good progression, as long as he's healthy," Rothschild said.
The Yankees will wait until Sunday before deciding on the next step. It depends on how Tanaka's elbow responds a day later.
The young ace got off to a blazing start after signing a $155 million, seven-year contract in January — New York also paid $20 million to his Japanese team — going 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 18 starts and earning an All-Star nod. But he was placed on the disabled list two days after a rough start July 8.
The Yankees have fallen eight games back of Baltimore in the AL East and 3 1/2 games back of the second AL wild card and could use some help for a rotation that has been ravaged by injuries.
Manager Joe Girardi said Tanaka will have to make some sort of rehab starts before he could return.
"I was pleased. He felt good, and that's the most important thing," Girardi said. "Big thing is we'll see how he feels tomorrow then we'll make a decision.