Why Yankees' ace Luis Severino may be the biggest X-factor in AL playoffs

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NEW YORK – The American League playoffs may be shaped by Luis Severino.

The Yankees’ ace, entrusted with wild-card game starts the last two years, missed the first 151 games of this season due to rotator cuff and lat muscle injuries. He finally made his season debut Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Angels, pitching four scoreless innings in a tune-up for potential postseason action.

If Severino can get up to speed in time for the playoffs, he could be a difference-maker and potentially help the Yankees end their nine-year World Series drought.

If he can’t, that road through Houston or Minnesota becomes all the more daunting for a Yankees team lacking frontline starting pitching.

“I’ve been looking forward to this since (the injury) happened in spring training,” Severino said after his first outing since last Oct. 8. “It’s been a long time, a long road back but I’m here now and healthy. I can help my team now.”

Pinstripe pitching problems

As the Yankees roll into October, jostling with the Astros for the top record in the AL, their biggest weakness is their starting pitching.

Their lineup is loaded, or, as manager Aaron Boone would say, savages in the box. The bullpen is fearsome, even with Dellin Betances lost for the year due to a left Achilles tear he suffered during his return this past Sunday.

The rotation is another story with the Yankees lacking that frontline ace to match up against Houston’s Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole.

Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton will make postseason starts, but after those two, the Yankees seem ready to be creative. And that’s where Severino enters the picture.

“He’s an elite pitcher,” Boone said. “A chance to get out there now, a few times before the end of the season will be really valuable for him and us.”

If Severino is healthy and capable, the Yankees suddenly have an intriguing, high-upside arm they can utilize in the ALDS and beyond. That he returned Thursday is a victory for both parties considering there were times it did not seem he would pitch.

The Yankees could use Severino as an extended opener before turning to their vaunted relievers or another starter such as Domingo German, J.A. Happ or CC Sabathia. Using Chad Green as an opener is also in play.

In a perfect scenario, Severino could even give the Yankees five strong innings before turning over a lead to their bullpen.

Regardless of how they use them, Severino has the highest upside of the starters since he’s an elite pitcher who can miss bats, which would be critical against a Houston lineup that has struck out less than any other team.

“We need Sevy where we’re going,” catcher Austin Romine said. “He’s pitched some big games for us and looking forward to him pitching more big games for us.”

Sep 17, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Luis Severino (40) walks to the dugout against the Los Angeles Angels during the third inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Luis Severino (40) walks to the dugout against the Los Angeles Angels during the third inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

An impressive first outing

Tuesday’s season debut marked an encouraging step for Severino, and provided optimism that he can help in October.

While the Angels lineup won’t be mistaken for the Twins’, Severino held them in check, limiting hard contact while striking out four batters in a 67-pitch outing.

Severino yielded two hits and walked two batters in an 8-0 win.

His night began with a 12-pitch walk and a single, but Severino later induced an inning-ending double play from Albert Pujols to escape the first unscathed. Severino’s fastball averaged 97 mph and topped out at 99 mph. He registered seven swings and misses with his heater.

The 25-year-old also recorded two strikeouts with his slider, but noted that it could be better against lefties. He tallied 13 swings and misses overall.

Romine said Severino “threw the ball really well.”

“Another huge step back for (Severino). Really excited for him and how well he threw the ball. What I loved was how in control he was with his delivery,” Boone said. “The stuff was very good, but it wasn’t like he was reaching for it. He really stayed within himself the entire night and really gave us four outstanding innings.”

This Yankees’ season has thus far been defined by the team’s ability to handle injuries, and the hope has always been that the reinforcements would come.

When the Yankees failed to add a single starting pitcher at the deadline this summer — a decision that drew plenty of criticism — it only heightened their need for Severino to return at some point and provide quality innings.

This team has shown it can win without Severino, but to survive in October against lineups like the ones Houston and Minnesota employ, quality pitching is needed.

Severino’s debut may have come five months after he and his teammates would have preferred, but Severino still has a chance to play a meaningful part in the Yankees’ quest for their 28th championship.

“It was exciting. It was fun going out there, hearing the fans,” Severino said. “Being around all my teammates and being out there and trying to win games. I felt great.”

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