NEW YORK – It has escaped notice, and rightfully so, because of Cleveland setting an American League record with a 22-game winning streak, but the Yankees are playing some excellent baseball in September as they continue to edge closer to a playoff spot and keep heat on the Red Sox in the East race.
Behind eight sparkling innings from Luis Severino on Friday night, boosted by home runs from Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird, the Yankees put an 8-2 pounding on the Orioles, furthering Baltimore’s tumble out of contention and moving to 10-4 for the month.
The Yankees’ surge has not been against soft competition, as their games in September have been against Boston, Baltimore, Texas and Tampa Bay – none of whom have given up on their 2017 hopes. With a young core that persevered through some midseason struggles, New York can really start thinking about what’s to come, and it starts with the 23-year-old who has become their ace.
“Whether it’s a guy that you’ve seen do this before or not, it’s just impressive the way he’s pitched all year long for us,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We really believed that he was always a starter… and he’s just continued to get better and better.”
Severino was 5-4 with a 3.54 ERA when he went to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career, not bad at all for someone who had to make good on the Yankees’ belief that he was indeed a starter after a disastrous 2016. In the second half, Severino has been even better, with Friday night’s win moving him to 8-2 with a 2.09 ERA, with 94 strikeouts and 22 walks in 77.2 innings.
Girardi marveled at a statistic he’d heard, that Severino had 15 starts in which he’d allowed one or no runs, and that figure was entirely accurate. Friday night, Severino did not add to it, instead making it 19 starts in which he has allowed two runs or fewer – because he got tagged for a Yankee Stadium short porch homer by Welington Castillo in the second inning. It did not rattle Severino, and he wound up getting better and better as the game went on.
“I’ve been able to command my pitches and communicate with Gary (Sanchez),” Severino said, praising the Yankees’ catcher who is often criticized for his defensive work. “He calls a good game. Sometimes I’ll shake because I don’t want to throw a pitch, but I think the key is I’ve been able to focus on my pitches – the change is good, and the slider.”
When those off-speed offerings are working, along with a fastball that cracks triple digits on the radar gun at times, Severino is pretty much untouchable. Being able to put it together is how Severino has become a fringe Cy Young contender and the pitcher the Yankees would be most likely to want on the mound for the wild-card game, if they’re there, or the opener of a playoff series.
“I think you look at the teams in the past that have won, they’ve had true aces,” Girardi said. “You look at the teams last year that were in the World Series, there were true aces on the mound that had really big years for their teams, so I think it’s really important.”
The Yankees still have Masahiro Tanaka, but he’s been inconsistent this year, at 12-11 with a 4.73 ERA. Sonny Gray has been an ace in the past with the A’s, and has a 2.66 ERA in eight starts since joining the Yankees, with a 3-5 record thanks to poor run support and some shoddy defensive work behind him. It’s a testament to how good Severino has been that he would be an easy pick over two guys with playoff experience at the top of rotations.
“I think you look at the way he’s pitched, obviously we really believe in him when he takes the mound,” Girardi said. “That’s the best way to say it, and again, I don’t want to get too far ahead – we’ve still got a lot of work to do, 15 games left. We need to focus on that, not what might be. But every time he takes the mound, we feel really good.”