Yankees' playoff hopes just got a major boost from Luis Severino

NEW YORK — For the last act of the home portion of their 2019 regular season, the Yankees started their day with some tears and ended it with a laugher.

But in between, they gave their fans something a lot more valuable than either of those two emotions: They gave them hope, in the form of Luis Severino, who pitched like the ace they will need to progress deep into October. Hope, in the sense that their excellent regular season — Sunday’s 8-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays was win No. 102 of the season with five games left to play — might still morph into a memorable postseason.

And hope that when they head into what seems like an inevitable American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, with their starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Gerritt Cole and Wade Miley, the Yankees will be able to match up arm for arm.

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That’s how important Severino’s second start after missing almost the entire season with shoulder and lat problems was to the Yankees’ psyche heading into the final week of the season.

Certainly, there is still one regular-season goal to be met — the win left the Yankees a half-game behind the Astros in the race for the best record in the AL and the postseason home-field advantage that goes with it — but the focus is on the bigger picture.

As manager Aaron Boone said, “If we’re going to get far in this thing, Sevy’s going to have to pitch well.”

The day began with an emotional on-field ceremony in honor of CC Sabathia, who on Friday started his last game as a Yankee and whose role in the postseason is uncertain, to say the least.

Sabathia, who went 5-8 with a 4.99 ERA in this, his 11th season as a Yankee and 19th in the big leagues, has been told his new seat is out in the bullpen, and pending a couple of test runs in the Yankees’ final games against the Rays in Tampa and the Rangers in Texas, it is unclear exactly what his postseason role will be.

Luis Severino of the New York Yankees reacts after the final out of the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on September 22, 2019 in New York City. (Getty Images)
Luis Severino of the New York Yankees reacts after the final out of the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on September 22, 2019 in New York City. (Getty Images)

But that hardly put a damper on the sentimental look-back the Yankees gave Sabathia before the game. He was treated to a victory lap around the stadium in a golf cart, an all-expense-paid trip to Japan to be used at his leisure, and most movingly, a video tribute in which his wife, Amber, his mother, Margie, and his children read him a letter of appreciation. The ceremony ended with Sabathia throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to his mom, who had been his personal catcher during his formative years in Vallejo, California.

“I was crying,” Boone said. “I almost had to go down in the tunnel, because I was about to lose it really, really bad. And, frankly, I think it was something that was a little inspiring for the guys today. I think guys wanted to finish well on CC’s day.”

Then it was time to look ahead to the future.

That belongs to Severino, whose right arm has shown tremendous promise in his first four seasons — he won 19 games last year with a 3.39 ERA — but has never performed well in the postseason, prompting suspicions that he was wearing down from his regular-season workload.

That should not be a problem this October; in two starts, Severino has thrown all of nine innings and is unlikely to be pushed beyond six innings in his final start of the season, expected to come Saturday in Arlington.

And having a well-rested Severino for the playoffs could be the equivalent for the Yankees of having acquired a top-line starter at the trade deadline.

In his first start of the season last Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels, Severino battled command problems and a high pitch count but still tossed four scoreless, two-hit innings and, courtesy of the high-powered Yankees offense, left with an 8-0 lead.

On Sunday, Severino improved on that outing, turning in five tidy innings of scoreless, three-hit ball, and again left leading, 8-0. The Yankees got home runs from Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner in the first inning, and another from D.J. LeMahieu in the second to pad their major league-leading HR total to 298.

But the real fireworks were provided by Severino, who came out firing darts — his first 11 pitches were strikes — showing a fastball that touched 99 and coaxed 11 swinging strikes from an admittedly unimposing Blue Jays lineup.

What especially impressed Boone was Severino’s composure on the rare occasions when things didn’t go precisely right, for instance, when his slider strayed out of the strike zone.

“I thought he did a good job all day when he would get behind or something of kinda collecting himself,” Boone said. “You’d see him walk off the back of the mound, gather himself, slow things down and get right back on track.”

“I’m feeling 100 percent,” Severino said. “The velocity was there, even in the last inning. I was getting a little tired at the end.”

After needing 67 pitches to get through four innings in his first outing, Severino got up to 80 in this one, and Boone said he was likely to throw 90 in his final regular-season start, which would put him right where the Yankees need him to be for his first start in the playoffs.

And with Severino back in the rotation, the biggest question mark facing the Yankees — namely, would they have enough reliable starting pitching to stack up with teams like Houston and, if they get that far, the Dodgers — seems closer to a definitive answer.

The Yankees are likely to go with openers for the two-game series that starts Tuesday in Tampa, and the way Boone is structuring his rotation for the final week, James Paxton, who has overcome a rough start in New York to win his past 10 starts, will go Friday. Severino will go Saturday and Masahiro Tanaka will start the season finale on Sunday.

Most likely, that would line Paxton up to start Game 1 of the ALDS on Oct. 4, Tanaka for Game 2 on Oct. 5 — both at Yankee Stadium — and Severino Game 3 on the road.

J.A. Happ, who will not make another start this season but is scheduled to pitch out of the bullpen on Wednesday in Tampa, could start Game 4. Or it could be Paxton on short rest. Or an opener.

The point is, a unit in which the Yankees seemed to have little flexibility is suddenly flush with options.

“You got to be excited about what you saw today,’’ Boone said. “Sevy is one of those guys that when he’s on his game, he’s obviously pretty special. If he can do that, we love our chances when we hand him the ball.’’

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