ST. PETERSBURG -- From a distance of 60 feet and six inches, Brian McCann peered between the bars of his catcher's mask and saw the most encouraging thing that the Yankees could have put on display Saturday evening: a healthy and efficient Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka was not thrilled with his first two outings of the year, but even the harshest critic could not find much to be upset about in No. 3. Tanaka handcuffed the Rays to two hits over seven scoreless innings, striking out eight and walking none in a 9-0 victory at Tropicana Field.
"I feel like this is what he's been doing since he got over here. ... I really do," McCann said. "There's no questions in here about it. The guys that are in this clubhouse, that watch him prepare on a daily basis, that see him go about his business, he's ready to go."
After allowing a first-inning single to David DeJesus, Tanaka retired 15 straight until Brandon Guyer's double leading off the sixth. Tanaka pinned him there, setting down the last six batters he faced before handing over a big lead to the bullpen after 85 pitches.
"I'm happy with the results, happy with the way I pitched today," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I have to get ready for the next game."
Tanaka caused a minor stir this week, mentioning that he is still building arm strength as a result of a light spring workload, but the right-hander was thrilled with his fastball on Saturday. He reared back for 28 four-seamers and 12 two-seamers, while showing off nasty sliders and splitters.
"I think it's all about the mechanics," Tanaka said. "The way that I was pitching, the mechanics were working well. That was probably the reason why I was able to pitch the way I pitched."
When the Yanks examined the radar gun, they found that Tanaka averaged 91.7 mph with his four-seamer and maxed at 93.9 mph; about 1 mph lower than where he was in his third start of the 2014 season.
"I think for him it's important; for all of us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "But I think it's really important for him to see, 'When I have my stuff, I''m going to pitch extremely well,' and that's what he did tonight."
McCann said Tanaka seemed to have more tilt on his slider and could throw his curve for a strike at any time. Rays manager Kevin Cash said Tanaka worked differently than their expected game plan, noting that Tanaka used his two-seamer to lefties more than usual.
"He was better. The command of the fastball was better," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "I thought he had a better downhill plane on it, and threw some fastballs down and away to the spot to right-handers very well. That means that he's getting through pitches pretty well."
Rothschild called it "a real good step in the right direction," and it was the kind of outing that allowed the Yankees to dream big about having that version of Tanaka on the mound for 30 to 32 starts. It's no overstatement to say that could be the difference between competing in October or heading home.
As such, the Yanks will protect their prize when possible; Girardi and Rothschild said there has been no decision on if Tanaka will pitch on four days' rest Thursday at Detroit, or perhaps giving him an extra day and pushing that start back to the next evening in New York.
"I felt pretty good about him once we got through Spring Training," Girardi said. "Obviously, the only question we probably need to answer is going every fifth day. That's the only question, how his body responds continually. He seemed to do OK with it last year, and it's going to happen this year. I feel pretty good about it."