By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
Luis Severino didn’t need a change of scenery to become a useful contributor to the Yankees’ postseason hopes.
He just needed a change of assignment.
And now, as the Bombers approach these next three games in Boston after Thursday’s brutal 7-5 loss, the still-developing 22-year-old right-hander could well play an integral part in their drive to unseat Toronto from that second wild card spot.
And that’s just for the present. Severino’s future will depend on how the Yanks ultimately visualize him — as starter or reliever. But for now, the kid is pitching middle relief, and he’s doing it brilliantly.
No one even thought about such a turnaround as Severino struggled in his starting role following a strong rookie showing in 2015. In a year where the front office expected him to leap from 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts, Severino struggled to 1-8 with an 8.58 ERA in nine starts.
He clearly looked every bit of a disaster until a 2 2/3-inning, seven-run cannonading against the White Sox on May 13 forced a demotion to the minors. The Yanks’ top prospect before the trade deadline brought gems like Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and Dillon Tate, Severino didn’t wear the pinstripes again until a July 27 recall, after which he went 0-2 in his two starts, allowing 12 runs in eight innings.
Off to the bullpen he went. And there lies the possible beginning of the rest of Severino’s story.
His work in the middle innings, providing the beginning of the bridge to closer Dellin Betances that seemed obliterated with the trades of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, has been no less valuable than the work done by deadline imports Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren coming after him.
Since going to the ‘pen on Sept. 2, Severino has made five appearances and is 1-0 without allowing a run over 10 innings.
The Yanks didn’t use him Thursday night, but they probably should have. Instead, Warren, Blake Parker, and Betances gave up a run in the eighth and five in the ninth, capped by Hanley Ramirez’ three-run homer off Betances to end the game.
The setback, coming after Masahiro Tanaka provided seven innings of one-run ball, makes it even more critical that Severino continue his success. The Yanks can ill-afford any more pitching missteps in this series.
But considering Severino also held three other opponents scoreless over 8 1/3 innings of relief before his permanent reassignment, Joe Girardi won’t have a problem calling his number if Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, or CC Sabathia need bailing out in these last three critical games at Fenway.
And if Severino continues on this same successful trend, his future could well lie in the bullpen, not the rotation.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing. Mariano Rivera made a fairly nice living as a converted starter. Betances, himself, transitioned from starter to reliever. So it’s entirely possible that the Yanks may have stumbled upon their down-the-road setup man and possible closer.
That’s for later days, however. In the meantime, the team has generally prospered under Severino’s renewed focus. He’s hitting spots with more consistency than he did as a starter, and he’s learning how to handle tough situations. On Sunday, for instance, he pitched into and out of a bases-loaded situation in the seventh inning of a 4-2 loss to the Rays.
He delivered two innings of one-hit ball in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Dodgers, a setback caused by the lineup’s lack of success against Clayton Kershaw and ninth-inning errors by Starlin Castro and Betances, who sailed an easy throw home, allowing the inning’s second run to score.
Severino had done his job, though.
A bolstering of the lineup with Wednesday’s signing of former Athletic Billy Butler should compensate nicely at DH. As Aaron Judge spends the rest of the season recovering from an oblique strain, Butler, a hot-headed 30-year-old, can salvage a bad season. Part of that will involve him keeping his dukes to himself, thereby avoiding a repeat of his August bout with teammate Danny Valencia that ultimately caused his release.
Assuming Butler does have a positive effect on the lineup — he immediately paid dividends Thursday night with a sacrifice fly and RBI single against the Red Sox — Severino could see even more critical situations in the final 10 games of this crucial 11-game road trip.
If he continues to produce, Severino’s ticket to sticking in the majors may lie in his relief work, especially if he figures big in an eventual wild card takeover.
Severino has already rescued his own season. Now, he will be called upon to help the franchise finish an improbable drive that started at the trade deadline and took a major step backwards Thursday.
It’s all out in front of him.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino