Yankees manager Aaron Boone announced on Thursday that James Paxton will start Game 1 of the ALDS against the Twins on Friday.
When Aaron Judge heard the news, he had no shortage of praise for the one of the team's prized offseason acquisitions.
"He's the best left-handed pitcher in the game, in my opinion," Judge said. "Just the stuff that he has and then his bulldog mentality on the mound. That's the one thing I thought he was missing at the beginning part of the year."
It truly was a tale of two half-seasons for Paxton in his first year in pinstripes. The 30-year-old grinded his way through his first 18 starts of the season, pitching to a 5-6 record with a 4.72 ERA.
"The first half of the season was tough, just kind of navigating myself," Paxton said. "Pitching here is different. It's not easy and it took some work but I feel like in the second half I started to get my feet under me. I had a good mental process going into games and started to feel a lot more comfortable here."
Paxton and pitching coach Larry Rothschild found that teams were able to sit on his fastball and cutter, and because there isn't a huge variation in velocity on those two pitches, teams started to sit on the hard stuff and really attacked pitches in the strike zone.
Paxton incorporated his curveball a lot more in the second half and the results spoke for themselves. He threw six innings against the Red Sox on Aug. 2 and earned the win after allowing two runs on two hits, and then proceeded to win nine more consecutive starts before finishing his season on Sept. 27, pitching just one inning before he was removed for precautionary reasons. In that timeframe, the left-hander went 10-0 with a 2.51 ERA, striking out 69 hitters in 61 innings and holding opposing hitters to a paltry .177/.248/.298 slash line.
Those numbers in the second half gave Boone the confidence to go with Paxton in Game 1, though he had to give consideration to both Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino, who will pitch in Games 2 and 3, respectively.
"Frankly I went back and forth on it daily, sometimes a few times over the course of a day," Boone said. "The reason that was is because I feel like all of those guys are in a good place. Frankly I would have been comfortable going a lot of different ways with those guys but I feel like James is the best guy to get us off on the right foot."
With the vaunted Yankees bullpen waiting at the ready, Paxton -- and the rest of the Yankee rotation -- may have their postseason starts abbreviated as Boone looks to shorten the game. But that's not something the pitcher is worried about.
"I'm going to do what I do," Paxton said. "I'm going to go as hard as I can for as long as I can and when they take the ball away they take the ball away. I've watched postseason games before it does seem like the leash is shorter, especially with the bullpen we have. But I'm not going to concern myself with that. That's the manager's job, the pitching coach's job. I'm going to try to go out there and do my job."
If he does, Judge thinks he could be the catalyst for the Yankees' postseason success.
"He's an animal out there," Judge said. "That's what he's shown the past couple starts and that's what's going to help us in the playoffs. Hostile environments, big situations. That's when Paxton shows up the most."