Aaron Hicks may win over Yankees fans yet.
A frequent target of enmity from those cheering for pinstripes in 2016, his maiden season with the Yankees, Hicks couldn’t have asked for a much better night early in season No. 2. He hit two home runs, one from each side of the plate, in the Yankees’ 3-2 victory over the Rays in front of 34,772 on Thursday night at the Stadium.
Hicks shared top billing with winning pitcher Luis Severino, who struck out a career-high 11 in seven innings in the Yankees’ fourth straight victory.
“Tonight he showed us what he’s capable of doing,” Joe Girardi said of Severino, who dazzled in 11 starts when he was called up in August 2015 but lost his rotation spot by mid-May of 2016 because of a lack of fastball command.
It hasn’t always been clear exactly what Hicks, a former first-round pick of the Twins whom the Yankees acquired before the 2016 season, is capable of. Scouts have always felt the tools are there, but the performance more often than not has not been. He hit .217 with a .281 on-base percentage in 123 games last season.
Hicks played solidly in spring training, though, and it has carried over. His two-run blast to leftfield off lefthander Xavier Cedeño with two outs in the seventh produced a 3-2 lead for the Yankees (5-4), who completed a three-game sweep of the Rays (5-5). He also homered to rightfield off righthander Matt Andriese in the first inning.
It was the first two-homer game since 2013 for Hicks, who stayed in the spring training competition for the starting job in right far too long for many fans’ comfort before being beaten out by Aaron Judge. Girardi informed Hicks on March 30 that Judge had won the competition.
“I saw the disappointment in his face,” Girardi said. “It wasn’t easy because I thought he had a pretty good spring training too. I said your opportunities are going to come. I give him a lot of credit because I thought he turned the page really quickly.”
Hicks said he allowed himself to be upset for “a couple of days” before moving on.
“Sulking around really isn’t going to help anybody,” he said. “It’s going to take a couple of days when you get disappointing news like that, but we’re a team. I’m going to root for him [Judge] the same way he’s going to root for me.”
After Hicks’ second homer, Dellin Betances quickly inserted some drama into things by walking No. 9 hitter Jesus Sucre and allowing a single by Corey Dickerson that put runners at the corners with none out in the eighth. But Betances pitched out of it, striking out Kevin Kiermaier and Evan Longoria looking at breaking balls, then getting Brad Miller to ground back to him. Betances made the tag for the inning’s final out.
“I had the confidence I would be able to get out of it,” he said. “I was excited and obviously I had the crowd behind me. The crowd was pretty loud, especially when I had two strikes.”
Aroldis Chapman allowed a one-out single by Logan Morrison in the ninth but, with a fastball peaking at 102 (the YES Network gun had it at 103), he recorded his second save, striking out two.
The late theater overshadowed, though not by all that much, Severino’s stellar outing. With a killer slider and ever-improving changeup, he racked up strikeout after strikeout in his seven innings. Severino, who allowed two runs, five hits and one walk, got stronger as the cool 61-degree evening progressed, striking out five of his final seven batters, with his fastball reaching 98 mph in that span.
“I think all my pitches were working,” said Severino, who threw 104 pitches.
Austin Romine said the pitcher’s stuff “never fell off.”
“Sometimes when you get upwards of 80, 90, 100 pitches, sometimes maybe the pitches, you start to sacrifice some movement, location or stuff like that,’’ the catcher said. “But it just didn’t fall off.”