LAKELAND, Fla. — The way Aaron Boone told it, Luis Severino just smiled when the manager told him he was going to make his first Opening Day start in Toronto on March 29.
“I think he was excited,” Boone said on Saturday. “He smiled and I think he was happy, but he wasn’t overly emotional. But I’m sure inside — Opening Day in Major League Baseball is a big deal.”
It’s no surprise that Boone picked Severino; his predecessor, Joe Girardi, chose the righthander over Masahiro Tanaka to start last season’s American League wild-card game.
But the rookie manager may have thought he had to tread somewhat lightly because Tanaka started the last three Yankees openers. CC Sabathia started the six before that. They now are Nos. 2 and 3 in the rotation.
“We spoke with all of them and Masa’s one of the first conversations we had,” Boone said. “I think all five guys were on board and certainly understand the direction that went . . . I’m going to always feel good about giving the ball to Masa in any scenario, Postseason, big game, whatever it is. We just feel it’s Sevy’s time.”
Tanaka appeared to be fine with the decision. “I thought it was well-deserved [with] how he pitched last season,’’ he said. “He is the guy who should start the very first game of the season. Also, it was good to know exactly when I’m pitching when the season starts so that I can sort of schedule myself accordingly.”
Boone announced the entire rotation in the visiting dugout at Joker Marchant Stadium before Tanaka started the Yankees’ spring training game against the Tigers.
Severino, Tanaka, Sabathia and Sonny Gray will start the season-opening series in Toronto. Second-year lefthander Jordan Montgomery will get the honor of pitching the home opener on April 2 against Tampa Bay.
Boone said the potential pitfalls of having a young pitcher such as the 25-year-old Montgomery start the home opener was “something that we considered a little bit. But in the end, we felt like we wanted to line it up in the manner we did. We feel at the end of the day, all our guys are capable of handling everything that goes into that, Monty included. So it was a little bit of a discussion, but in the end we settled on how we wanted to roll it out without the place in mind.”
Boone did have Severino’s place at the top of the rotation in mind when spring training opened. In 2017, the 24-year-old went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA, made his first All-Star team and finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Severino struck out 230 in 193 1⁄3 innings.
“I just felt like it’s his time for it,” Boone said. “What he did last year, obviously. We feel like he’s in a really good place now and we just felt like now is the time for him to take on that role. We believe he’s ready for it and looking forward to seeing him continue to grow in his role as one of the aces of the staff.”
Severino, who was back in Tampa when the news was announced, has made only one start in an exhibition game thus far. He allowed one unearned run in 3 1⁄3 innings on March 8 against the Phillies. The Yankees have had him pitch in minor-league games and throw simulated games instead. Severino is scheduled to pitch on Sunday against the Marlins at Steinbrenner Field.
“I think it’s been great,” Boone said. “Every side he’s thrown, the [simulated] games, the games, I think he’s in a really good place. I think he’s really sharp. I think the confidence is in a really good place where he knows he can be really special, but there’s also a workmanlike hunger and desire to be great. We feel like the time is now to put him in that role.”
Severino lasted only one-third of an inning against the Twins in that wild-card game last year, but the Yankees came back to win. He went on to pitch seven solid innings and got the win against Cleveland in his next postseason outing, which helped put aside any notions that he can’t handle the spotlight.
“I think one of the things that made us feel good about this decision, I think, was how he followed up and bounced back from that game really well,” Boone said. “This is another step I feel like on his career path.”