Luis Severino's breakout season is a microcosm of the 2017 Yankees.
At the outset of the season, Severino's ability to be a starter was in question, and experts picked the Yankees to languish toward the bottom of the standings. In Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Yankees have a chance to reach their 41st World Series, and Severino is the man they want on the mound to get it done.
"Beginning of the season, nobody was expecting us to be anything,'' Severino told reporters Thursday. "And right now, we have a chance to be in the World Series.''
Some didn't believe Severino would be part of the Yankees equation as a starting pitcher when the season set out, and he may not be favored against seasoned veteran and Game 2 winner, Justin Verlander. The fact that Verlander is pitching at his highest level of the season puts more pressure on the young star to compete against a pitcher many believe is superior.
Severino has battled the impression he is the second-best pitcher on the mound throughout the season. Yet in the regular season, he outdueled Boston's Chris Sale (twice), Cleveland's Carlos Carrasco and Seattle's Felix Hernandez, among other aces.
Granted, it won't be easy for Severino. Besides matching up against Verlander, who dominated in a complete-game effort in Game 2, Severino has to face an Astros offense that put up nine runs in 7 2/3 innings in two regular-season starts.
Severino pitched well in Game 2, giving up one run in four innings to keep the Yankees within striking distance. In Game 5, New York's offense figured out Dallas Keuchel, and it'll do its best to repeat the challenge against Verlander. But not lost was Masahiro Tanaka's sterling pitching performance that propelled the Yankees to their third straight win in the Bronx.
Now, it's Severino's turn to beat a pitcher some expect to be the star of the game. Being the underdog and being doubted have been Severino's story all season long.
After a miserable sophomore season in 2016 (3-8, 5.83 ERA, 71 IP), the 23-year-old right-hander was at a crossroads. The question being asked by outsiders: Did Severino have enough to be a starting pitcher, or was his electric fastball best suited for the bullpen?
The Yankees, and more importantly Severino, believed he was a starting pitcher. However, it was evident he had to work hard in the offseason to regain confidence in his changeup and hone his mechanics. Doing so would give him a shot for a rotation spot, and Severino enlisted the assistance of Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez.
Martinez worked with Severino over the winter and the young pitcher took the former Yankees' adversary's advice to heart. Severino came to camp less muscular and quickly worked his way into the rotation conversation. Once Severino solidified his role, he set out to make sure the discussion never returned to his ability to start.
Severino was a workhorse in the regular season, racking up 193 1/3 innings across 31 starts. He threw into the seventh inning 20 times and compiled impressive numbers (2.98 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 230 strikeouts), which will ensure some votes in the AL Cy Young voting. Severino's climb was as impressive as the Yankees' regular season results.
The regular season means little with a World Series berth on the line, and Severino may feel he has something to prove after his collective work in the playoffs.
Severino pushed aside a terrible start in the wild-card game with a fine bounce-back effort against the Indians in the ALDS. He was prematurely removed from Game 2 after Yankees manager Joe Girardi believed his young ace may have harmed his shoulder after the hurler was seen shaking it during the fourth inning. Severino was upset with the decision and vowed Thursday to provide his skipper no reason to come and get him in Game 6.
"I'm not gonna do nothing," Severino said referring to shaking his shoulder. "I'm just gonna throw the ball and walk off like a robot."
Severino often improves as the game progresses, however to get to that point he must harness the excitement and energy he'll feel in the opening frames. If Severino's stuff is crisp early, the pressure will lessen, which would allow him to remain strong deep into the game.
His role Friday night is to control the Houston offense and get the game to the Yankees' vaunted bullpen, the place he proved he did not belong. Severino has a chance to carry his team to the American League pennant, and if he can, maybe doubt will stop following him.