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NEW YORK — Luis Severino last pitched in a major-league game 339 days ago.
It was Oct. 8, 2018 — Game 3 of the 2018 ALDS.
And it was an absolute disaster.
Severino allowed six runs on seven hits in three innings, and the New Yankees were blown out 16-1 by the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox to fall into a 2-1 series hole (New York was ultimately eliminated in four).
Even before then, controversy swirled around whether Severino knew what time the game started, as he had begun throwing in the bullpen just eight minutes before first pitch (Severino denied that was the case afterward).
“I mean, I’ve had good starts in the playoffs before, so I don’t take that as a bad thing,” Severino replied recently when asked if he thinks about that outing given how long he’s had to wait for his next one. “The game before — the wild-card game against the Oakland A’s — I gave them four good innings (with no runs allowed).
“You’re going to have games like that. You’re going to go out there and not have your best stuff, and Boston was the best team all year. When it happens, you try to be better.”
The 25-year-old right hander hasn’t gotten a chance just yet. Multiple injuries have prevented him from pitching after signing a four-year, $40 million contract extension in the offseason.
First, inflammation in his rotator cuff.
Next, a setback due to a Grade 2 lat strain.
The Yankees even acknowledged missteps in their handling of Severino’s rehab.
He didn’t make his first minor-league rehab start until Sept. 1 — a rusty, one-plus inning outing with Triple-A Scranton that Yankees manager Aaron Boone compared to the pitcher’s first start of spring training.
“It was like getting into a room with a bunch of candies,” Severino said of his excitement getting back on the mound. He did a lot of thinking out there, perhaps too much, wondering if his glove was in the proper position or whether he was tipping his pitches.
Severino looked sharper five days later (3 IP, 1 HR, 5 K, 50 pitches at Double-A Trenton), hitting 95-97 mph on the radar gun. Wednesday is expected to be the final hurdle before his return to the roster, one last rehab start with the Thunder.
“To me, he’s demonstrated enough to be an option,” Boone told reporters in Boston.
That would enable Severino to make his first start for the Yankees when the team returns to The Bronx on Sept. 17-19 to face the Los Angeles Angels. He could potentially get three starts before the postseason to knock off the rust. He thinks he can get up to around 100 pitches by then, but that seems extremely ambitious.
“I mean, (this whole situation) has been a bit bad,” Severino said. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the team. We got a great team here, we’re in first place, I’m getting better now and I’m going to go pitch in the playoffs and maybe win a World Series.”
Luis Severino going from 0 to 100 real quick
On Sept. 1 — the same day Severino made his first rehab start — A’s lefty Sean Manaea made his return to the big leagues at Yankee Stadium. The 27-year-old Manaea came back after undergoing shoulder surgery, though he had been making minor-league rehab starts since July. So far, he’s gone 1-0 with a 0.75 ERA and 15 strikeouts in two starts.
Across town, New York Mets righty Marcus Stroman (ACL) once made all of four September starts in 2015 before dealing for the Toronto Blue Jays in the postseason, though he was doing rehab outings in August.
A pitcher like Severino going 0 to 100 — essentially spring training to the playoffs — in a month seems like a difficult challenge. Yet the Yankees need rotation depth behind emerging ace James Paxton (8-0, 2.57 ERA in his last eight starts) and postseason stalwart Masahiro Tanaka (1.50 playoff ERA in five starts).
With a deep bullpen, they would be more than happy to sign up for a scoreless, four-inning start like Severino had against the A’s in the wild-card game. After all, the Yankees need to make sure not to overexert him given how valuable he is to their future going forward.
And immediate expectations must be realistic. Severino owns a 6.26 ERA in six career playoff starts.
“All Severino needs to go is four or five innings because of their bullpen,” one scout said. “Paxton looks sharp, and he’s capable of beating anyone when he’s on (though he’s never pitched in the playoffs before). And Tanaka can step up in the playoffs.”
Last season, Severino had a 1.98 ERA in his first 18 starts, but a 5.67 ERA in his final 14 outings.
“It’s not so much velocity with him as it is commanding his stuff,” the scout said of Severino. “He had a great first half, but when he struggled in the second half it was because a lot of his pitches were center cut.
“You can’t do that in the big leagues. You’ve got to really work the edges and then expand. You’re not going to be successful over the middle. He’s not going to fool you. He’s not going to pitch backwards. He’s a power guy with a fastball and slider — and he mixes in a changeup — so he’s really gotta depend on late life and locate.”
Yankees have pitching decisions before October
On Wednesday, 39-year-old veteran CC Sabathia will also return from his latest knee injury when he starts against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
Sabathia (4.93 ERA), who hasn’t gotten past the fifth inning since July 16, admitted to reporters recently that he would’ve already retired in what is his final season if the Yankees weren’t contenders. A spot on the postseason roster presumably hinges on his health.
Domingo German, the 27-year-old righty who has a breakout season with 17 wins, will piggyback behind Sabathia. German has thrown a career-high 136.2 innings, and the Yankees may elect to use him in the bullpen come October.
Veteran southpaw J.A. Happ has often looked as though he could be left off the postseason roster, but he’s posted back-to-back scoreless outings at the perfect time. If nothing else, Happ (5.10 ERA) has held lefties to a .680 OPS, making him a viable left-on-left relief option.
Boone also hasn’t ruled out the idea of using Chad Green as an opener. Green has posted a 4.15 ERA in that role (28 strikeouts in 17.1 innings), and the Yankees are 11-2 in his starts.
In other words, there’s still a lot that needs to be ironed out.
But the goal remains getting 27 outs — regardless of how it’s done. And with Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman at the backend (Dellin Betances is also working his way back), the Yankees are positioned to get creative if needed.
They just don’t have the luxury of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke like the Houston Astros.
“I’m guessing that I’m going to start,” Severino said. “But I just want to help my team. If it’s in the bullpen, if it’s starting, I just want to help.”
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