TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka faced his first live hitters of the spring at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Friday morning, and judging by the baffled reactions from the batting practice group standing in, the $155 million right-hander is nearly ready for game action.
"Whoo -- I'm glad he's on our team," said Yankees catcher Austin Romine, who grabbed a bat to face Tanaka. "I think he threw a split and I had to turn around and ask what the pitch was. I've never seen a ball move like that before. It's special."
Tanaka said that it was his first time throwing to a batter since Game 7 of last year's Japan Series, when he came out of the bullpen and recorded the save as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles clinched their first championship.
That game was played last Nov. 3 in front of a raucous crowd of more than 25,000, but there were no cheering fans in the closed ballpark on Friday morning: just lots of media, focused on Tanaka's every movement and watching for reactions from Yankees manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"He looked good. I was pleased with what we saw," said Girardi, who watched from behind a screen in back of the mound. "His stuff looked crisp to me. The ball looked like it was coming out good. I thought it was a good day. I know it's early, but it's what you want to see."
The session marked Tanaka's first opportunity to team with catcher Brian McCann, who figures to receive most of his starts this year. Tanaka had twice worked with Francisco Cervelli and once with John Ryan Murphy while throwing bullpen sessions earlier in camp.
"It was good to be able to have Brian catch me today," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "But all the catchers, they all are a first time for me, so I'm actually looking forward to throwing to everybody."
Four hitters stood in against Tanaka: the right-handed-hitting Romine, left-handed-hitting outfielder Ramon Flores, right-handed-hitting outfielder Adonis Garcia and switch-hitting outfielder Antoan Richardson.
There were few swings, which is not uncommon early in camp -- generally speaking, pitchers are ahead of hitters at this time. Garcia rolled a ground ball to second base and Richardson fouled a few pitches off, the only contact that the group made against Tanaka.
Girardi said that he plans to have Tanaka make about six Spring Training starts, but the manager is not yet ready to announce the first part of his rotation. That will likely be revealed on Sunday, but Tanaka sounded as though he is ready to be included.
"I don't think I need that many [more] live BP sessions," he said. "I'd like to get into games more and try to build my arm strength through games."
Girardi reiterated that he has no plans to keep Tanaka away from American League East teams during Spring Training.
"I think it's important that he sees Major League hitters and has an idea of what he's going to approach," Girardi said. "You think about some early games -- what are they going to see him, one at-bat? Maybe they'll see him two at-bats.
"So I don't think that's necessarily a huge thing. We've got to get this guy comfortable pitching in surroundings that he's going to be in, and I think that's more important than a team not seeing him once."
As far as early impressions go, McCann said that he thought Tanaka was "absolutely as good as advertised." He believed Tanaka was throwing at about 80 percent in the session, and Tanaka estimated his effort to be a tick lower at 70 percent.
"I thought he was great," McCann said. "He worked all his pitches in there. His fastball command was there. His offspeed, I thought was great. His split has some great action on it. His cutter, his slider --- he was sharp."
McCann was particularly impressed by Tanaka's splitter, a pitch that some talent evaluators have ranked among the best in the world. McCann said that the pitch "really falls off the table" and comes off a motion that is completely the same as the righty's fastball.
That meshed with what Romine said he saw from the box.
"Tracking it in, I didn't know what it was until it was halfway in," Romine said. "You're going to see a lot of guys swinging and looking like fools on that pitch. I can already tell off of that.
"And his fastball was a good angle, down and away. Locking me up on fastballs away -- just the overall angle and consistency with all those pitches -- it's going to be something special."
McCann said that it was hardly his first look at Tanaka: the Yankees sent McCann video of all of Tanaka's 2013 starts, giving the catcher a pre-camp homework assignment. Now, his priority is to build a working relationship.
"We've got eight weeks down here to get that squared away," McCann said. "This was his first live bullpen, so we're a ways away."
Tanaka sounds like he will be ready for whatever challenges come next.
"I feel I'm getting used to this," Tanaka said. "I think I'm getting into the rhythm of this whole thing."