Luis Severino was in a playful mood late Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. The day had gone so well that he mused about pitching only in the sunshine. He felt so strong that he guessed he could throw his fastball 103 miles per hour. He was dressed for success, and he knew it.
“Today when I was walking in there, I saw that I really looked good in pinstripes,” Severino said, smiling. “So hopefully I can keep doing that for a long time.”
Severino had reason for optimism. The Yankees had just beaten the San Diego Padres — a team struggling to find the substance to match its style — in 10 brisk innings in the Bronx. After another victory on Sunday, 10-7, they stood with a 32-23 record, sturdy again after a sluggish start.
Relatively sturdy, anyway. The Yankees were hitting only .234 as a team before Sunday, which would be their worst average in a full season since Mickey Mantle’s farewell in 1968. They’re six and a half games out of first place, trailing Tampa Bay and second-place Baltimore, in the rugged American League East, which has no teams with losing records.
And yet, when Severino pitches as he did on Saturday — when only a two-out error in the seventh kept him from a seven-inning, one-run performance — the outlook seems a whole lot brighter.
There’s a long way to go, of course, with many injuries and trades to unfold across the league. But no lineup would relish facing Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, a full-strength Carlos Rodón and Severino in a short series — especially with Severino throwing an easy 97 m.p.h. again. Domingo Germán, scheduled to return Monday from a sticky-stuff suspension, has been solid, too.
“You can see a place where we have a chance to have a really complete and talented group that’s tough to score against,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “Sevvy’s a frontline guy. When he’s on the mound, if he’s at his best, he can match up with anyone, and any offense.”
The Padres are missing the star infielder Manny Machado, who has a hairline fracture in his left hand, and they held Xander Bogaerts, their marquee free-agent signing, out of Saturday’s lineup to rest a sore wrist. Severino mastered their makeshift order, allowing just one hit — a homer by Fernando Tatis Jr. — and three walks across six and two-thirds innings.
It was the second strong start for Severino, who missed the first 48 games of the season with a strained right lat muscle. A similar injury cost him two months last summer, and he missed most of the three prior years — 2019 through 2021 — with shoulder and elbow trouble.
Severino exemplifies the fragility of power pitchers. In both of his All-Star seasons, 2017 and 2018, he threw the hardest fastball in the majors among qualified starting pitchers: averaging 97.6 m.p.h. both seasons, according to Fangraphs.
Cole was second in fastball velocity in those same seasons, spent with Pittsburgh and Houston, and has stayed healthy ever since; Severino, admiringly, called him a “monster.” More common, perhaps, is the case of Rodón, the left-hander who had surgeries to his shoulder and elbow with the Chicago White Sox before an All-Star season in 2021.
He followed that up with another last year, for the San Francisco Giants, then signed with the Yankees for six years and $162 million. A forearm strain and back problems have kept Rodón on the injured list all season, and while he remains inactive, he is back in the clubhouse now and will travel with the Yankees this week for series with the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It’s nice to be able to be a part of the team and be here, but when I was rehabbing in Tampa, it was tough watching and being on the outside looking in,” Rodón said. “I wanted to be a part of it. Obviously you’ve got to try to be a good teammate every day, but it makes it a lot easier when you’re pitching on a mound.”
Rodón has been doing that — in the bullpen, at least — and said he no longer feels discomfort in his back after a cortisone shot in early May. The inactivity altered his calendar — “I’m back to February freaking 15th,” he said — but he has finally started the customary six-week buildup that a pitcher would get in spring training.
“In the bullpen yesterday, the shapes were there,” Rodón said on Saturday. “Obviously, it’s not 98 miles an hour, but the metrics on the pitches — the carry on everything, the shapes were the same as they’ve always been the last two years. I feel like I’m moving down the mound the same way. Now it’s just part of the build-up process, building up to throwing to hitters and building more endurance throwing in games. That’s the steps I have to take.”
Considering the injury histories for Severino and Rodón, a lighter load of regular-season innings could help in the postseason. That’s a charitable way of looking at the situation, perhaps, but every team must solve the riddle of keeping their best pitchers fresh for when it matters most.
The Rays and the Orioles have been better than the Yankees so far. But Tampa Bay has no pitchers who have ever thrown 170 innings in a season, and Baltimore has two — Cole Irvin, who is in the minors, and Kyle Gibson.
The Toronto Blue Jays are the only team in the majors to use just five starters this season, but steady has not translated to success; the team has been in a tailspin since the Yankees took three out of four at Rogers Centre in mid-May. And while Chris Sale is thriving again at last for the Red Sox, the rest of Boston’s patchwork rotation has a lot to prove.
In that context, third place in the A.L. East doesn’t seem so bad. The Yankees are imperfect, but if rotation strength matters most in the long run, they should be just fine.