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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Even a rusty Luis Severino could help Yanks down stretch

Luis Severino #40 of the Yankees looks on

Luis Severino #40 of the Yankees looks on from the mound before a game against Cleveland at Yankee Stadium on Friday, Sep. 17, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The last pitch Luis Severino threw for the Yankees came in Game 3 of the 2019 ALCS against the Astros. The next one? Presumably to help them get into the playoffs, a scenario that was looking more desperate by the minute when Severino finally was activated for Monday’s series opener against the Rangers.

The Yankees didn’t need him later that night, as four relievers combined for 4 2⁄3 scoreless innings in the 4-3 victory. Ideally, Aaron Boone would prefer to have Severino make his debut in a spot with more breathing room.

"Yeah, probably," Boone said afterward. "But we might not have that luxury either."

Plenty has changed in the Bronx since Severino last took the mound in a game that mattered. Gerrit Cole has replaced Masahiro Tanaka as the big-money ace at the front of the rotation, the Yankees are scrambling to make the postseason, and the young core that Severino supposedly was a part of is showing cracks, a dubious foundation for the future.

Signing Severino to that four-year, $40 million deal at the start of spring training in 2019 was meant to signal a new direction for Brian Cashman’s Yankees, a step toward securing the homegrown stars responsible for this recent revival. Cashman bought out Severino’s remaining arbitration years, along with his first shot at free agency by holding a $15 million team option for 2023.

The move figured to be a shrewd business decision at the time. Nearly three years later, it was — for Severino, who made only three regular-season starts in 2019 after signing that deal because of lat/shoulder issues, missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery and now returns for the final two weeks of this one as a member of the bullpen.

Not what anyone had in mind, of course. But there’s no point in looking backward, especially with a wildly inconsistent Yankees team trying to stabilize itself for this playoff push.

"I don’t think much about the contract because I was signed to play baseball," Severino said Monday afternoon. "A lot of different things happened and I couldn’t do it. Right now the most important thing is that I’m healthy and I can go out there and compete."

Severino wound up in a slightly similar situation toward the end of the 2019 season, when he came back on Sept. 17 and pitched 12 innings (1.50 ERA) stretched out over three starts. But there were two key differences. The Yankees already had 98 wins and led the AL East by nine games by the time Severino made his season debut that season. Also, because of his somewhat condensed rehab this year — groin and shoulder setbacks delayed his return — he is slotted for the bullpen.

That’s not the worst thing, considering the weary Yankees — still in the midst of playing 20 consecutive days — badly need to fortify their relief corps. Entering Monday, the Yankees’ bullpen was ranked 23rd in ERA (4.50) and 21st in WHIP (1.37) in the past month, not where anyone would expect a Cashman-constructed relief crew to be.

Maybe Severino will be a little rusty. But for a team currently on the October bubble, he represents a welcome lifeline.

"He could find himself in the highest-leverage situations," Boone said before the game. "And could evolve into a multi-inning role, could be a big inning here or there."

In 2016, with the Yankees in flux after a deadline fire sale and Severino struggling as a starter, he was converted to a reliever. In 11 games, he went 3-0 with a 0.39 ERA in 23 1⁄3 innings, allowing eight hits and striking out 25.

That temporary assignment later became a springboard as Severino followed up with back-to-back seasons of 30-plus starts and 190-plus innings, a convincing body of work that compelled Cashman to abort the 2019 arbitration process and lock up Severino longer term.

Severino isn’t going to make Cashman sleep any better at night by being a factor down the stretch now. But at least he got back in time to help, with the Yankees still in contention, rather than tuning up for 2022 in meaningless September games.

With Severino, the talent has never been in question. It’s a matter of staying healthy, and given that there’s only two weeks left, he has to stay that way for only a short sprint.

As for the past, well, what’s done is done.

"I can’t control that," he said. "I come here every day to work and get better. Sometimes stuff happened. I didn’t want it to."

It’s never too late for Severino to start proving his worth to the Yankees again. Fortunately for him, the season’s not over yet, and the team’s playoff chances aren’t, either. The most Severino can hope for now is to make a difference when given the chance.

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