The Yankees put an end to the speculation Thursday, naming James Paxton to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Twins.
It will be the first postseason appearance of the lefthander’s seven-year big-league career, which doesn’t concern him or the Yankees in the least.
“The biggest thing,” Aaron Judge said Thursday, “is he’s the best lefthanded pitcher in the game, in my opinion. Just based on the stuff he has and just his bulldog mentality on the mound.”
In the latter part of the season, Paxton (15-6, 3.82 ERA) certainly was in that conversation. Before leaving his final regular-season start last Friday after one inning with a tight left glute, he had won 10 straight starts. He posted a 2.25 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in that stretch, struck out 68 in 60 innings and limited opposing hitters to a .167/.241/.273 slash line.
“It’s good,” Paxton said of his glute. “It will be a non-issue.”
Aaron Boone, who named Masahiro Tanaka as his Game 2 starter and tabbed Luis Severino to start Game 3 in Minneapolis, said the decision was a difficult one.
“Frankly, I went back and forth on it daily, sometimes a few times over the course of a day, and really what it came down to, the reason that was, is because I feel like all those guys are in a good place,” Boone said Thursday morning before the Yankees’ afternoon workout was pushed indoors because of rain. “So I felt like it was a good decision, and then just trying to hopefully maximize those guys as best we can. So frankly, I would have been comfortable going a lot of different ways with those guys, but I feel like James is the guy to get us off on the right foot.”
Paxton, the headline offseason acquisition of general manager Brian Cashman, did not do that with Yankees fans. He struggled early on and never really got on a roll until the 10-game streak.
The turning point was a July 26 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park that dropped him to 5-6 with a 4.72 ERA. Paxton was shelled for seven runs and nine hits, including four homers, in four innings. From the start of spring training, he had talked about the importance of mixing in his curveball, but Paxton had been hesitant to do so. After that loss, however, he decided he had become too predictable.
“I think that incorporating the curveball is really important because it’s just a change of speeds,” Paxton said. “When I throw the fastball at, say, 94 to 96 [mph], and then I throw the cutter at 88 to 91, they can kind of stay looking hard and just pull the cutter and run into it almost by accident sometimes. Whereas if I throw the curveball at 80, 83, something like that, it will get them out front and they won’t be able to cover two pitches with the same swing.”
Paxton faced the Twins once this season, but there wasn’t much to be gleaned one way or the other from the May 3 outing. Paxton, who allowed one run (unearned) and two hits, left the game after three innings with soreness in his left knee that landed him on the injured list. So a team that hit an MLB-record 307 homers isn’t all that familiar with Paxton, and vice versa.
Judge said the right pitcher will be on the mound.
“The biggest thing I noticed with Paxton is his mindset. He’s an animal out there,” he said. “That’s what he’s shown the past [two months], and that’s what’s going to help us going into the playoffs, especially. Hostile environment, big situations, I feel like that’s when Paxton shows up the most.”
GAME 1 PITCHING MATCHUP
James Paxton Jose Berrios
15-6 W-L 14-8
3.82 ERA 3.68
150 2⁄3 IP 200 1⁄3
11.1 SO/9 8.8
3.3 BB/9 2.3
1.28 WHIP 1.22
Paxton career vs. Twins: 3-1, 2.27 ERA
Berrios career vs. Yankees: 1-2, 5.79 ERA