NEW YORK -- James Paxton knows what he will be up against when he anchors his left foot against the Yankee Stadium pitching rubber Friday evening, entrusted with the honors of throwing the first pitches in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Twins.
If Paxton is successful in containing a Minnesota lineup that edged his own club in the home run department this season, a Major League-leading 307 to 306, then the left-hander believes that he can put his Yankees in strong position as they begin this best-of-five showdown.
“Executing pitches; that's what it's all about,” Paxton said. “It's staying out of the middle of the plate. If you make a mistake with a team like that, with 300-plus home runs, they don't miss them. They do hit good pitches here and there. There's nothing I can do about that. I just need to limit the mistakes to try and limit the damage.”
“I went back and forth on it daily, sometimes a few times over the course of a day,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Frankly, I would have been comfortable going a lot of different ways with those guys, but I feel like James is the guy to get us off on the right foot.”
Paxton, who went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA and 186 strikeouts this year, will be making his postseason debut after spending the first six years of his career with the Mariners.
“I feel very fortunate to be here,” Paxton said. “This is a team that commits itself to winning and making it to the postseason every year. That's a dream for all baseball players when we're young -- to pitch in the postseason, pitch in the World Series.”
Paxton said that he watched both of the Wild Card Games this week in order to get a sense of the energy and has been speaking to teammates with playoff experience. CC Sabathia, who will not be on the ALDS roster, has been one of the sounding boards that Paxton has tapped into.
“We just talked about all those starts throughout the season -- first time against Boston, first start here,” Sabathia said. “They're all big starts, and they're equal to playoff starts. He has the experience. He's just got to go out and perform.”
Paxton pitched once against the Twins this season. He threw only three innings in that May 3 start before leaving because of left knee inflammation that sent him to the injured list. His repertoire has changed since then, with a heavier curveball mix producing a 10-0 record and 2.51 ERA in his final 11 starts of the regular season.
“He's the best left-handed pitcher in the game, in my opinion, just based on the stuff he has and his bulldog mentality on the mound,” Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said. “He's an animal out there. That's what he's shown the past couple starts, and that's what's going to help us going into the playoffs, especially. Hostile environment, big situations -- I feel like that's when Paxton shows up the most.”
Paxton said the nerve irritation in his left glute that prompted his exit after 21 pitches in his final start on Sept. 27 at Texas should not be a concern on Friday.
Tanaka had a 4.45 ERA this season and has pitched better at home than on the road, though Boone said that did not factor into his thinking. Tanaka also has a sterling track record in the playoffs; the right-hander owns a 1.50 ERA over 30 innings in five postseason starts.
“If he's throwing the ball the way he's capable of and on top of his game, we feel like he's a good matchup anywhere,” Boone said of Tanaka.
Severino missed almost all of the regular season because of right shoulder and lat injuries, but the right-hander was excellent in three September starts. Severino has compiled an up-and-down postseason career, including a rough start against the Twins in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, when he surrendered two first-inning homers and recorded only one out.
“They have a good lineup, but we have a good lineup, too,” Severino said. “I faced them in 2017. That wasn't good, but we won that day. I can get revenge for what happened there.”