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Masahiro Tanaka throws 25 pitches

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka was back on the mound for the first time in five weeks on Saturday, and even though it was only a bullpen mound, it gave the New York Yankees reason to hope that their ace could return to pitch for them before the end of this disappointing season.

Asked if he was encouraged by Tanaka's first bullpen session since going on the disabled list on July 9 with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, manager Joe Girardi said, "I am. I've been somewhat guarded, in a sense, because I think you've got to get in competition, but obviously it's another step, and it's significantly more than just playing catch."

Still, Tanaka is likely a month or more away, barring setbacks, from a return to pitching in a real game. That makes it problematic whether he will be back soon enough to help the Yankees, who entered Saturday trailing the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles by eight games and sit behind three other teams in the race for the second wild-card.

But Girardi characterized the Yankees' desire to have Tanaka pitch again in 2014 as more of a gauge for next year than as a savior for this year.

"I think it's important that we know that he's healthy," Girardi said, "and I think the only way you're going to find out is if you get him in games."

Tanaka threw 25 pitches, all four-seam fastballs, in the Tropicana Field bullpen before Saturday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays, which the Yankees won, 3-2.

"I felt very good," said Tanaka, who acknowledged he was not throwing with the kind of intensity he would use in a game.

"I'm not going to go 100 percent on the first day of bullpens," he said. "But I felt that I was able to throw the way I wanted to. Just the fact that I was able to get through it without any pain."

Still, neither Tanaka, Girardi, nor pitching coach Larry Rothschild could provide any timetable for Tanaka's continued rehabilitation nor give an estimate of when he might be able to pitch in a game again. Tanaka has not pitched since leaving a July 8 game against the Cleveland Indians in the seventh inning, having allowed a season-high five runs and two home runs.

He complained of elbow pain afterward and underwent an MRI, which revealed the tear, an injury that usually is treated with Tommy John surgery. After consultation with several orthopedic surgeons, including Dr. James Andrews, Tanaka and the Yankees opted for a non-surgical recovery involving a platelet-rich plasma injection followed by a gradual throwing program.

Rothschild and Girardi likened Saturday's session to the first bullpen of spring training, which is the beginning of a six-week process that includes live batting practices, simulated games, and exhibition games before the regular season begins. The Yankees hope Tanaka will require less time than that, although he undoubtedly will need to pitch in an undisclosed number of rehab games in the minor leagues, assuming he makes it through the earlier steps.

"I can't put a time frame on it," Rothschild said. "It's another step in the process. They're all big, and he has to get through them all. It's great he got through it today and feels good but it's more important how he feels tomorrow."

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