Ever since the Houston Astros took them down in the 2017 American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees have been looking to close the gap on their new blood rivals. Forget the Boston Red Sox. It's the 'Stros who stand in the way of a pennant and the Bombers' first trip to the World Series in a decade.
Let's be more precise: It's Justin Verlander who the Yankees need to conquer in a Game 1 or a Game 7 setting. So far, no one on their staff has been able to outperform this ageless velocity machine, a fact that continues to haunt the Yankees with the postseason just around the corner.
No translation is necessary here. The feeling in the Bronx is that the American League champ will end up running the table in October. True or not, real or perceived, Verlander's presence hangs over the Yankees like a guillotine.
But two recent developments have bolstered the Yankees' belief that a Verlander killer has finally emerged.
The first is James Paxton's surge since the start of August. He's 8-0 with a 2.57 ERA, averaging almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings. The 6'4" left-hander—nicknamed Big Maple in honor of his Canadian roots and imposing stature on the mound—has so thoroughly dominated hitters lately that one major league executive said, "That's the kind of stuff that you ride [to the World Series]."
Option two is Luis Severino, out all season with shoulder and lat issues but finally ready to take the ball on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels. It will be his first appearance since a disastrous showing in last October's division series against the Red Sox, which left the organization with a number of unanswered questions.
Severino never got a chance to address his second-half regression in 2018 or the nagging belief that he was tipping his pitches. Instead, he experienced pain in his lat early in spring training and was on the injured list before Opening Day.
So far, however, Severino has demonstrated renewed arm strength, not to mention unwavering confidence that whatever went wrong last summer is no longer relevant.
The Yankees have always loved the 25-year-old for that can-do attitude fueled by a 98 mph four-seam fastball. No Yankee starter throws harder than Severino, and he not only dominated but also demoralized hitters on his best days in '18. That's the version the Bombers are expecting to see Tuesday and for the next six weeks.
If so, manager Aaron Boone has a powerful set of choices if and when the Yankees face the Astros. No one in the Bronx has to be reminded of the battle plan: beat Verlander and inflict collateral damage on the rest of Houston's rotation.
Again, this is no slight against Gerrit Cole or Zack Greinke, but it's Verlander who's left his imprint on the Yankees.
He beat Severino in Game 6 of the ALCS in 2017, throwing seven shutout innings en route to the Astros' 7-1 victory that set up their pennant-winner the next night.
The Yankees were just nine innings away from the World Series when they took the field at Minute Maid Park, having swept Houston in the Bronx in Games 3-5. But there was Verlander in Game 6, delivering high-90s heat with that big, old-fashioned delivery—just like he did in Game 2, when he struck out 13 over nine innings of one-run ball.
What stung even more was knowing Verlander could've been a Yankee at the trade deadline that summer. All Hal Steinbrenner had to do was give general manager Brian Cashman the go-ahead to acquire the ace the 2017 squad lacked.
But George Steinbrenner's youngest son runs the Yankees with greater restraint than his father ever did, instructing Cashman to stand down and closing the spigot just as his team was on the verge of a breakthrough.
The Yankees have been paying for Steinbrenner's caution ever since.
Even in the midst of a sterling 2019 season with a projected finish of 106 wins, the Yankees are still in search of a standout at the front of their rotation. When Verlander beat them again in June, this time outpitching J.A. Happ in a 9-4 victory, first baseman Luke Voit could only shake his head and say, "The guy is just incredible."
No American League pitcher keeps opponents to a lower batting average (.166) and permits less traffic on the bases (.077 WHIP). No wonder the Yankees are betting so heavily on Severino and Paxton. They represent the best—and perhaps only—chances to match Verlander with the season on the line.
Of course, Boone isn't anywhere close to deciding who would get the ball first in the division series, let alone the ALCS. The Yankees need to see for themselves that Severino is pain-free, has the stamina to pitch deep into games again and has finally fixed the tip-pitching habits that ruined him in 2018.
But the reports along the Severino injury-rehab trail have been encouraging, similar to their epiphany that Paxton isn't Sonny Gray after all—a nice guy with tremendous stuff who just couldn't pitch in New York.
The Yankees are about to find out if either hurler has what counts most in the Bronx: an October heart to match Verlander's.