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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

James Paxton could be a difference-maker for Yankees

Yankees starting pitcher James Paxton delives a pitch

Yankees starting pitcher James Paxton delives a pitch during the second inning of the game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan/Joseph D. Sullivan

The Yankees are going to hit. They are going to have an overpowering bullpen. They are going to win a lot of games, at least 90-plus, maybe 100 or more, Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Orioles in the second game of the season notwithstanding.

So what exactly is going to make the 2019 Yankees better than the 2018 Yankees? You know, the 100-win team that finished eight games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and then lost to Boston in four games in the Division Series?

Ladies and gentlemen, let us introduce you to James Paxton, whom you may have gotten your first true look at if you were among the 42,203 who attended Saturday’s contest at Yankee Stadium or watched on TV.

If improving the starting pitching was the Yankees’ biggest offseason need -— Hal Steinbrenner has said umpteen times it was —- then how is it that they opened the season with only one new starter in Paxton, who was acquired from the Mariners on Nov. 19 for three minor-leaguers?

That’s a lot of eggs in Paxton’s basket. But based on first impressions, Yankees fans should have seen more than a glimmer that the lefthander can be the difference-maker the club needs.

Paxton was overpowering for five innings against an Orioles lineup filled with youngsters and Triple-A players. Paxton, who threw a no-hitter last May 8 at Toronto, didn’t allow a hit until the fourth. He struck out five, including the side in the fifth, before giving up two runs in the sixth, the second of which was unearned. The run that put the Orioles ahead for good scored when Gary Sanchez chose to throw to second instead of third on a one-out double steal and bounced the ball into centerfield.

Paxton threw 5 2/3 innings and allowed four hits — three of them in the sixth — with one walk. That he was the hard-luck loser shouldn’t temper any enthusiasm over his outing.

“I thought he was strong,” manager Aaron Boone said. “I thought he was efficient. I thought his command overall was good. I think he kind of did all the things he wanted to do. I thought overall he was really good.”

The fans knew that. Paxton received a nice ovation as he walked off the mound even though he left trailing 2-1.

“That was great to get that acknowledgment from the crowd,” Paxton said. “I tipped my cap to them and it was great to hear them out there.”

Here’s one sequence you can rewatch on YES to see what Paxton is about at his best: In the fifth, he threw a 77-mph curve to Joey Rickard for strike one. Four pitches later, he threw a 96-mph fastball on the black of the outside corner for a swinging strike three.

Next batter: Rio Ruiz. After a foul for strike one, the final two pitches were 80-mph curves for called strikes and the second out. Then, against Drew Jackson, a five-pitch clinic that ended with a 97-mph fastball just above the strike zone for a swinging third strike.

“That,” Aaron Judge said, “is a deadly arsenal right there.”

Rickard. Ruiz. Jackson. Not exactly Betts, Martinez and Bogaerts, we know. But one truth about baseball that hasn’t changed in the era of home runs, strikeouts and shifts is that pitchers with talent who are on their games can tame even the best lineups.

That’s the 2019 Yankees’ biggest question: Do they have enough of that type of pitcher at the beginning of the game the way they clearly do at the end?

At the moment, with Luis Severino injured, the answer is no. But Paxton’s performance should spark hope.

Paxton is 30 and had 102 career starts going into his Yankees debut. Exactly one of those outings was in the Bronx — last June 21, when he gave up four runs in five innings and was the losing pitcher.

The winning pitcher was Severino, who, if he comes back from his current shoulder woes, could form an impressive 1-2 punch with Paxton. It’s something the Yankees are going to need, especially in a short playoff series.

(Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs two games into the season? Yes, because the American League is so top-heavy that the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Indians are all pretty much assured of postseason berths unless something goes horribly wrong. Look over the rosters of the other 11 AL teams and then come back and tell me that’s wrong. I’ll wait.)

So Paxton took the loss in his first Yankees start. Something tells us his final outings of 2019 are going to be much more memorable than his first one. October is when the Yankees will find out if the lefty really has the right stuff.

New York Sports