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Masahiro Tanaka looking to become first Yankees ERA leader since 1980

Thursday night's game at Fenway Park is likely one the Yankees would prefer to forget, but one thing about the night was certainly a success: Masahiro Tanaka's stellar performance on the mound.

The Yankees ace tossed seven innings of one-run ball against the rival Red Sox inside the bandbox of Fenway Park, allowing just four hits and three walks while failing to record a single strikeout for the first time all season.

Despite his lack of punch-outs, Tanaka's impressive outing dropped his 2016 ERA to 2.97, the lowest mark among all starters in the American League entering play Friday.

The Yankees haven't had an ERA leader since Rudy May posted a 2.46 mark in 1980, after following up Ron Guidry's back-to-back seasons leading the league with a 1.74 ERA in 1978, and a 2.78 ERA in 1979.

The key to Tanaka's best career Major League season to date has been his ability to limit opponents' home run output, reducing his 2015 mark of 1.5 HR per nine innings nearly in half, to 0.8 HR/9 this season.

Additionally, Tanaka has continued to miss bats at an impressive rate, though not at the same level as he did in his first two seasons with the Yankees. Tanaka has rung up 160 batters this season - a career-high - but his K/9 ratio has dropped slightly from 8.1 K/9 to 7.4 K/9 this year.

Still, Tanaka has struck out at least seven batters 10 times in 2016, including a 10-strikeout performance on September 10 against the Rays. But apart from the strikeout totals, Tanaka's length has helped lead him to the league's best ERA, as well as lead the Yankees closer to the Wild Card race than anyone might have guessed back on August 1.

Tanaka has thrown six-or-more innings in all but six of his 30 starts this season, and on 19 of those occasions, he allowed three runs or fewer to his opponents. In six of his starts, Tanaka has shut out the opposition. Two of those shutout outings did not result in a win for Tanaka, who has received three-or-fewer runs of support seven times this season - something obviously out of his control.

Thirteen of his starts have resulted in a no-decision for Tanaka so far this year, however the Yankees have gone 9-4 in those games.

The Japanese right-hander has set new career highs in games started (30), innings pitched (193 2/3), strikeouts (160), home runs allowed per nine (0.8), while tying his previous career-high in wins (13). He may eventually be edged out in the wide-open Cy Young race, but Tanaka is no doubt having the best year of his Major League career.

While other A.L. Cy contenders such as Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber have outpaced Tanaka in the strikeout column, the essential quality of any ace is the ability to go deep into games and give their teams a chance to win, which is exactly what Masahiro has done all year long for the Yankees.

As the Yankees' playoff chase dwindles down over the last two weeks of the regular season, Tanaka will likely have three more starts for him to nudge his career-high marks up even further, while making a legitimate run at this year's A.L. Cy Young Award.