A huge week for the Yankees began with Luis Severino failing to outpitch Corey Kluber on Monday, and it ends on Sunday with his team’s hopes of catching the Red Sox riding largely on his ability to at least match Chris Sale pitch for pitch.
Is he up to the task? Is Severino ready to solidify his status as the Yankees’ ace?
The questions are especially relevant at the moment because Masahiro Tanaka finally seems to have found his old dominant form, as he delivered a third straight strong start since his brief stint on the disabled list, going seven innings in Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Red Sox.
As a result, the Yankees are getting their best starting pitching of the season as they head into this final month.
In fact, the foursome of Severino, Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and CC Sabathia is pitching well enough to match up with just about anybody come October, and if the offense finds more consistent footing again, well, who knows.
But Tanaka’s resurgence also raises the intriguing question of who should start the wild-card game if the Yankees can’t overtake the Red Sox to win the division.
For months Severino was the obvious choice, and right now he’d still be my pick, without question.
But I do want to see how he responds to the challenge of dueling opposite Sale on Sunday night in a game that will determine whether the Red Sox leave town with a lead of 5 ½ games or 3 ½ games.
With four weeks to go in the season, and no more games to be played against the Sox, that’s a huge difference for the Yankees. Finishing off this series by surviving Sale and winning three of the four games would be an important boost that might just jump-start their September.
The offense has been maddeningly inconsistent, but good health may be reason for optimism.
Matt Holliday, practically a forgotten man since late June, due to an allergic condition and then back problems, reappeared on Saturday to deliver the big blow in the game, a three-run home run off Drew Pomeranz that broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning.
Starlin Castro, a week back from that long hamstring injury, figures to get hot soon, though he was out of Saturday’s lineup due to a dental emergency.
And while Aaron Hicks left the game with tightness in his left oblique, always a bad sign, it might be more important that Clint Frazier is close to returning from his own oblique injury.
Of course, nothing would matter more than the light going on again for Aaron Judge, but he had another rough day Saturday. He did hit a ball that looked like one of his moon-shot home runs from the first half, sending the big crowd at the Stadium into a frenzy, but it died on the warning track in left field.
Same thing happened Friday night on a ball Judge hit a mile high to center but came down short of the fence. So either it’s an indication that he’s getting closer to finding that home run swing, missing the sweet spot by a centimeter, or it’s more evidence that he can’t solve his second-half habit of upper-cutting the ball to an extreme.
Whatever the case, come October there is always a premium on pitching, and with that in mind, Tanaka’s resurgence offers the Yankees reason to believe they could be dangerous in the post-season.
That 12-day stint on the disabled list in mid-August seems to have freshened Tanaka’s arm and helped him find his command, which mostly means getting movement on his splitter and slider down in the strike zone.
Indeed, after being plagued by the long ball much of the season, giving up 28 home runs in his first 23 starts, Tanaka has given up just one in his three starts since coming off the DL.
“I really think that was the right choice,” Tanaka said Saturday of the decision to put him on the DL. “I was able to get some time to refresh and strengthen my arm. And it does feel stronger now.”
Tanaka rang up only three strikeouts, but the Sox are a contact-hitting team, so it was perhaps more important that he got 11 of his other 18 outs with ground balls, a sign of the movement he was getting down in the strike zone.
In any case, he dominated and gave the Yanks a chance to win the series, so now all eyes turn to Severino.
He had electric stuff on Monday night against the Indians but gave up three solo home runs that were the difference in a 4-2 loss to Kluber. On Sunday he faces a Sox lineup that pounded him for 10 runs _eight earned _ three weeks ago, handing him his worst loss of the season.
Now he opposes Sale in what feels like a game that will tell a lot about Severino. He has earned his ace status this season but with Tanaka pitching well again, he still has to prove he should get the ball if the season comes down to that wild-card game.
Outpitching Sale on Sunday night would pretty much leave no doubt.