Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino walks to the dugout after...

Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino walks to the dugout after being taken out during the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres in an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, May 27, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Luis Severino threw 82 pitches Saturday afternoon, most of them brilliantly executed, with two notable exceptions during the Yankees’ 3-2 victory over the Padres (in 10 innings). 

The first was a teed-up 87-mph slider to Fernando Tatis Jr., who hammered a 426-foot rocket that short-hopped the back wall of the Padres’ bullpen for the only hit Severino allowed in his 6 2/3 innings. Later, after Severino retired him on a meek grounder, he joked to Tatis, “Why’d you have to hit that so hard?”

The second mistake came in the seventh inning, with Severino’s pitch count inching toward the finish line and manager Aaron Boone scrutinizing each of them a little more than the previous one. Knowing Severino’s worrisome medical history — this was just his second start back since the lat muscle injury he suffered in spring training — Boone’s heart must have been in his throat when Severino flung a full-count changeup over Nelson Cruz’s head, clear to the backstop.

To make matters worse, Severino immediately hunched over on the mound, hands to knees. On this otherwise beautiful, sun-splashed afternoon in the Bronx, it was enough to suddenly hush the sellout crowd of 46,963.

Oh, no. Not again.

Out rushed Boone. A short conversation. And then relief when Severino assured his manager he was fine.

“It was just a bad pitch — I was mad at myself,” Severino said.

Boone’s concern was understandable. The manager went into Saturday’s matinee with Severino on a 90-pitch limit, and to that point, his performance was A-plus. The velocity was there, with a four-seam fastball that averaged 97.8 mph and touched 100. Severino motored through the Padres with relative ease, right up to the first two outs of that seventh inning. That’s what made the rogue changeup to Cruz so alarming.

“I just wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt himself,” Boone said. “I think he was just frustrated, but I got a little nervous.”

Everyone did. The Yankees waited two months for Severino’s return, and that’s really been the default position for the franchise since he signed a four-year, $40 million extension  in February 2019. In that span, Severino had made a total of 22 starts (120 innings) before coming back on a $15 million option for this season.

For a pitcher with Severino’s talent, that’s a bargain. Problem is, his promise always seems to lag behind the reality, strictly because of his inability to stay healthy.

When the Yankees can get Severino on the mound, he performs like a Cy Young Award candidate, and that’s how he looked Saturday in retiring the first 10 Padres before Tatis’ fourth-inning homer tied the score at 1.

Severino was as economical as he was effective, relying mostly on his four-seamer-slider-changeup mix and needing only 31 pitches for the first three innings. For all the time missed, and with Severino bristling at the glacial pace of his rehab (the Yankees kept pumping the brakes as a precaution), he looked as sharp as ever.

Afterward, Severino joked about someday getting his velo cranked up to 103 mph, but for now he’ll take being back on the mound and back in the Bronx again.

“Any time you don’t get to go out there and help your team, it’s frustrating,” said the righthander, who walked three and struck out five. “Today, I was walking out there and I saw that I looked really good in pinstripes. Hopefully I can keep doing that for a long time.”

The Yankees will settle for the next four months of the regular season, and if that’s the case — along with Carlos Rodon’s anticipated return, maybe around July 1 — they should be able to push deep into October. Until Rodon actually makes it to a rehab assignment, he remains very much a $162 million question mark. But Severino appears ready to deliver on expectations, and that would be a huge boost for a rotation that has been treading water for the first two months (4.36 ERA, 15th in MLB).

“He’s a front-line starter,” Boone said. “And then hopefully we’re getting other guys in the mix as the season unfolds [and] you can see a place where we have a chance to have a really complete, talented group that’s tough to score against. When Sevy’s on the mound, if he’s at his best, he can match up with anyone and any offense.”

Saturday was prime Severino. Now the trick will be to keep him functioning for the immediate future, and the Yankees know all too well that’s no easy feat. It’s why they stretch out his rehab assignments, and it certainly played a role in giving him the extra rest after his season debut last Sunday in Cincinnati.

But Severino has to understand by now that it’s for his own good. And if what he did Saturday to the Padres is any indication, maybe he and the Yankees have figured out a method for keeping him intact for a prolonged period. That would be a game-changer as Severino pitches for his next contract and tries to get the Yankees that next elusive championship before this stay expires.  


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