Tanaka aims to show Japanese fans he 'improved' with Yankees

·2 min read

TOKYO — Masahiro Tanaka is back in Japan and says he can’t wait to get started pitching for his former Japanese team — the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The former New York Yankees pitcher signed a two-year contract earlier this week with his old Japanese club for a reported $9 million this season.

“I’m so excited," Tanaka said Saturday, speaking with reporters at a Tokyo hotel where he modeled his No. 18 jersey. "I can’t hold back my excitement to get up on the mound and pitch in front of the Japanese baseball fans again.

"I also want to show them how much I have improved after seven years of being away from Japan.”

That will be tough. He was an incredible 24-0 in his last season in Japan.

The 32-year-old Tanaka was a free agent after seven seasons with the Yankees, and he said he wanted to stay in New York.

“To be honest, when I became a free agent I wanted to re-sign with the Yankees," Tanaka said.

But he said his agent made it clear that was not going to happen.

"From that point, I thought about a lot of options, including going back to Japan. I thought about it over and over more than ever before.”

Tanaka pitched for Rakuten from 2007-13. In that final season, he was 24-0 with a 1.27 earned run average as the Eagles won the Japan Series title.

He then signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees ahead of the 2014 season and became a steadying, consistent presence in their rotation, going 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA.

He was an All-Star in 2014 and 2019 despite pitching with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

“It is a fact that I couldn’t win the World Series title and get the championship ring,” Tanaka said. “That had been my goal, so I feel that I have work left undone in the major leagues.”

But he said he now wants to focus on Japanese baseball, adding that he hopes to play in the Tokyo Olympics if they are held.

Japanese baseball started late last season and eventually some games were played in front of 20,000 fans — all socially distanced and wearing masks in the stadiums.

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Koji Ueda, The Associated Press