Not all of Masahiro Tanaka’s splitters loitered in the strike zone Tuesday night against the Padres. Like in a lot of his outings this season, some had more bite than others, but the one that hurt the most put the Yankees in a deep first-inning ditch they couldn’t climb all the way out of.
Trailing by a run in the first inning and with two runners on, Tanaka went after Eric Hosmer with a hanging splitter the left-handed hitter drove over the center-field wall for a four-run lead before Tanaka registered an out.
“Just a mistake on my part, bad pitch,’’ Tanaka said after the Padres hung a 5-4 loss on the Yankees in front of 37,028 at Yankee Stadium. “[The split] wasn’t there. I have had trouble executing that pitch.’’
It has faded in and out all season, but that didn’t cost Tanaka in his four previous starts when he fought to find consistency with his signature pitch yet went 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA. The Yankees won three of those four starts.
Tuesday’s game started badly for Tanaka when third baseman DJ LeMahieu couldn’t handle a spinning ground ball by leadoff hitter Greg Garcia that led to an unearned run. After Hosmer’s homer, Tanaka didn’t give up another run until the sixth inning when the Padres copped a 5-1 lead.
A three-run Yankees seventh when Padres manager Andy Green used four relievers — three for three batters — made it a one-run game, but ended when Gary Sanchez, who homered to center in the fourth, flied harmlessly to left. LeMahieu had a two-run single and Aaron Hicks drove in a run with a force out at second.
The Yankees had a chance in the ninth when pinch-hitter Gio Urshela singled off ex-Yankee Kirby Yates to start the inning, but the game ended when a replay ruling turned into a 6-4-3 double play that sealed the Yankees’ second loss in three games. It was Yates’ major league-leading 21st save.
The loss combined with the second-place Rays winning cut the 35-19 Yankees’ AL East lead to one length.
“Anytime we start to put it together late we always, it’s kind of winning time and these guys can smell it,’’ manager Aaron Boone said of the seventh-inning rally. “It’s about giving yourself that chance and we continue to do that. The more often you can do it the times you have a chance to strike. We just couldn’t get over the hump tonight.’’
With Luis Severino on the injured list and nobody sure when the former staff ace will return, Domingo German and Tanaka have moved to the top of the rotation.
Tanaka (3-4) said he will look at his mechanics and how the ball is coming out of his hand.
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Asked when he understood the splitter wasn’t going to be there, Tanaka said the answer came early.
“Tonight it was the homer to Hosmer,’’ Tanaka said.
A splitter isn’t a four-seam fastball that operates in the mid-90s and higher. It’s a finesse pitch that, when right, vanishes through an imaginary trap door late and makes hitters look sick. Tanaka has thrown them, but not consistently.
“It’s a feel pitch for him and he has worked really hard to find it and he has had it here and there,’’ Boone said. “It just hasn’t been locked down for him, but let’s not forget how well he has pitched. His fastball and slider both have been really good pitches and the split has been a good pitch at times for him. It’s just at times not been the dominating pitch he can lean on.’’