Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t the one who wrote the word “patience” under the visor of Luis Severino’s cap, a motivational tool the young pitcher pointed to for his improved performance Tuesday against the Rays.
But Tanaka is the reason it’s there, scrawled in large white letters. And if Severino holds on to win one of the rotation spots, as he’s expected to do, Tanaka should be credited with a big assist because of the mentor-like conversation the two had last week.
Tanaka has owned the Grapefruit League, with 13 strikeouts and zero walks in nine scoreless innings, and the Tigers will try to be the first team to claw him for a run when they face the Yankees on Friday in Lakeland. His impact on the rotation, however, has gone beyond this month’s dominant tune-up for another Opening Day start.
The Yankees know what to expect from Tanaka when he’s healthy. He finished seventh in the Cy Young Award voting after a superb if relatively under-the-radar 2016 and is poised to be even better during this opt-out year. The bonus could be his recent influence on Severino, who sought out Tanaka after his frustrating March 8 start against Team Canada.
Joe Girardi took a few postgame hacks at Severino, citing his poor fastball command and saying there will be “no gifts” when the Yankees choose the final two rotation slots. Severino’s 27-pitch first inning, which included a hanging slider that Mariners prospect Tyler O’Neill blasted for a two-run homer, was a messy face-plant on his audition tape.
The next day, after the Yankees’ pitchers completed their fielding practice, Severino approached Tanaka with a question: What’s his secret for being able to stay so focused, so in control, while on the mound?
“I asked him about how he’s always calm, because nobody can mess with Tanaka when he’s pitching,” Severino said Thursday morning. “That’s how I wanted to be. He told me to do something that would remind me of that, and that’s what I decided to do.”
Tanaka also gave Severino the idea of scribbling it somewhere, a magic-marker mantra imprinted on his person, to maybe glance at occasionally when the game starts to speed up around him. For Tanaka, the reminder is stitched onto the interior palm of his glove, where the Japanese word “kimochi” (pronounced kee-moe-chee) is spelled out in kanji characters.
Tanaka’s interpreter, Shingo Horie, explained that kimochi translates into English as something like “heart” or “composure.” Tanaka sees it every time he slides his hand into the glove, but just knowing it’s there is enough.
“I think you can have all the technical stuff down, but at the end of the day, I feel like it really comes down to right here,” Tanaka said, pointing to his chest. “So that’s what I write down to remind myself.”
That’s all Severino had to hear. Tanaka politely declined to go into too much detail about the half-hour conversation — “I’d like to keep it between me and Seve,” he said, wanting to respect his teammate’s privacy. But Severino raved about his talk with Tanaka, and it was obvious how much the 23-year-old appreciated the advice.
Tanaka suggested that Severino try to pace himself during the early innings, maybe even throttle back a little on the velocity to save his high-90s heat as he goes deeper into games.
That’s common practice for Tanaka, who picks the right spots for his max fastball so as not to burn out. Severino’s habit had been to go full tilt from the opening pitch, an approach that sabotaged his fastball command and exhausted him too quickly. By incorporating patience into his game plan, Severino can identify when he needs to dial back.
“I’m always rushing to the plate, trying to make a quick pitch or trying to overthrow,” Severino said. “I just think that’s my personality.”
Severino believes that he managed to make the Tanaka-inspired adjustments during Tuesday’s outing. He finished strong, striking out Logan Morrison, Evan Longoria and Brad Miller in the third inning. Afterward, catcher Gary Sanchez noticed the difference, saying, “I think that’s the key for him, to slow down and to breathe and take it easy. He slows down and the command is better.”
The new mindset worked so well for Severino that he might find another spot for more patience. Maybe inscribed on his glove, like Tanaka?
“Everywhere, I think,” Severino said, smiling.