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Yankees Magazine: Up, Down and Back Again

The lessons learned last October might push Luis Severino to even greater heights
Yankees Magazine

The sky is still dark at Centro Olimpico in the Dominican Republic's capital city, and torrential rains from the night before have flooded the grass. It's a mosquito's buffet alongside the track, irksome buzzing competing with the coaches' whistles. Through the predawn gloom, there's a group of athletes hard at work.

Over the years, this complex has played host to major international sporting events and concerts. Today, it belongs to the masses, and the routines couldn't be more primal, everyone using whatever is around. Here's a track, so this is where you'll run. Here are some hurdles, so these are what you'll jump over. Here are ropes, so these are what you'll swing. Forget about treadmills or air resistance machines; this workout wouldn't have looked any different a hundred years ago.

The sky is still dark at Centro Olimpico in the Dominican Republic's capital city, and torrential rains from the night before have flooded the grass. It's a mosquito's buffet alongside the track, irksome buzzing competing with the coaches' whistles. Through the predawn gloom, there's a group of athletes hard at work.

Over the years, this complex has played host to major international sporting events and concerts. Today, it belongs to the masses, and the routines couldn't be more primal, everyone using whatever is around. Here's a track, so this is where you'll run. Here are some hurdles, so these are what you'll jump over. Here are ropes, so these are what you'll swing. Forget about treadmills or air resistance machines; this workout wouldn't have looked any different a hundred years ago.

These regimens exist in places all around the world, boot camps for the general population. Go to Central Park any morning as the sun creeps its way up the sky, and you'll find workaday warriors doing much the same things. What you won't find, though, is a Cy Young Award finalist toiling alongside you. It's different down here.

Luis Severino is out before the roosters on this January morning, but his mind is on the coming October. He's making the same calculation as his contemporaries around the league: You do this work because you want to win the last game of the year and get a choice seat for a parade in November. The rewards of individual success can be wonderfully lucrative -- this is no hobby, let's be clear -- but the Yankees, who have won that last game 27 times, do a pretty good job driving home the ultimate point. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that bling.

Severino wears the TAKE 17 sweatshirt from last October as he arrives under a brisk chill on this barely morning, the oppressive heat still hours away from taking hold. The pullover is a small souvenir from what might have been a nightmare. And perhaps it's a reminder of how even in ever-unforgiving baseball, the pendulum still sometimes swings toward redemption.

***

It was a 3-1 offering to the Twins' Brian Dozier, delivered less than two minutes after the first postseason pitch Severino had ever thrown at any level. The Yankee Stadium crowd, boosted by an unexpectedly awesome season, was awake and ready for the American League Wild Card Game, and the 23-year-old ace was on the mound, the pendulum cocked back and about to be set free. Destiny waited.

Dan Shulman, on the microphone for the ESPN broadcast, tried to sum up the entire building's anxiety, but he couldn't even get through the thought. "A lot on his shoulders right now, and you wonder, as young as he is--" Shulman said, interrupted by a stabbing CRACK "--if that heart's beating a little bit quicker right now."

If it wasn't before, it certainly was after. Dozier had swung into a 99 mph fastball and sent it over the fence in left-center. The balloon might not have popped at that exact moment, but it didn't hold much longer. After a foul out and a walk, Eddie Rosario blasted a slider into the seats -- 3-0, Twins. The despair crept in with overwhelming speed. "Whoa," first baseman Greg Bird remembers thinking as he watched the wheels fly off the bandwagon. "That happened quick."

"If I give up a homer, I can still throw seven innings and one run," Severino says, looking back months later. "But after that, they started hitting me and I said, 'Oh, something's not right.' It was going so fast, everything was going so fast. The adrenaline, all of a sudden it was moving quickly. Everything was a mess."

A single, then a double, and Severino's big night was over 14 minutes after it started. He took a lonely stroll off the mound, carrying a disastrous pitching line. Three runs (and two runners still on his ledger). Four hits. One walk. One solitary out. Masahiro Tanaka, Ronald Torreyes and Jordan Montgomery offered him conciliatory pats on the back in the dugout, but the shattered pitcher barely broke stride en route to the clubhouse. After all the buildup and hype, Severino had wasted his moment. And that could have been it. He could have walked from the mound into the offseason, cursed to months spent dwelling on a brutally uncharacteristic performance.

But Chad Green struck out the final two batters of the inning, limiting the damage to the initial three runs. And in the bottom of the frame, the Yankees stole back the momentum, as they had done so often during the year. Brett Gardner worked one of the greatest at-bats a player can have that doesn't involve a single swing, walking on six pitches. Then Aaron Judge blooped a slider over second base, Gary Sanchez fouled out, and Didi Gregorius stepped in, with the fire returning to the 49,280 fans in the park. Ervin Santana's 3-2 pitch was 96 mph, down in the zone and slightly away. Gregorius whipped his bat through the plane and sent the ball toward the bleachers in right field. Tie game. The pendulum had swung back. Against a determined bullpen called into service for 8 2⁄3 innings, the Twins were held at bay, and the Yankees moved on to the Division Series against the Indians.

"You go from, 'Man, we're going to win the World Series,' to 'I've got to clean out my locker and pay clubhouse dues,' to 'We're back in it!'" CC Sabathia says. "It was an emotional up and down."

Severino was one of the first players over the dugout rail after the final out, looking more relieved than happy. By the time the team's clubhouse celebration wound down, he might have been the only player still thinking about the first inning. "I didn't go home feeling that great," he says, "because I didn't do my job. My team supported me and helped me, but I wasn't feeling that great."

But the Wild Card Game was over, and Severino would live to pitch another day. Redemption was around the corner, a not-entirely-new feeling for the young ace.

***

By 8 a.m., the morning cardio wraps up, and Severino's group moves over to a dirt field. The Santo Domingo sun has claimed its regular place in the sky; it's hot, but at least it's a sopping wet heat. The mercury reads 73 degrees with 88 percent humidity. It feels like a crisp 376 or so.

Severino does some long-tossing with Emmanuel Reyes, a 20-year-old pitcher in the Blue Jays' organization. Today, they're workout partners; there's no way yet to tell what the future holds for the young Reyes. But Severino is the reason that a handful of local kids are milling around the field on this Tuesday morning. It's a far cry from how he felt when he returned home after his disastrous 2016 season, which saw him go 0-8 as a starter before moving to Triple-A and then the Yankees' bullpen for the second half. Expectations had been high after a strong debut in 2015, but nothing went right in his first full season. Mechanically, he was a wreck. Mentally, he might have been even worse.

"I lost my confidence and all my stuff," he says. "If I know I have bad mechanics, none of my pitches is going to work out. If you throw a bad change-up and you throw another one bad, you're going to lose your confidence."

So just like the young admirers watching him work out, Severino turned his attention to an idol of his own, developing a relationship with Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, a hero in his native Dominican Republic. Putting himself in Martinez's hands on the field at Santo Domingo's Estadio Quisqueya, Severino was able to focus on the mechanics of his change-up, which -- if effective -- could complement his 100 mph fastball and swing-and-miss slider.

Severino had been a late bloomer, his velocity developing later than some of his contemporaries on the island. On July 2, 2011, the date that the best international kids his age could start signing contracts, the 17-year-old Severino was passed over. But the Yankees had been watching him for a while, and their interest continued to grow. The bonus he eventually signed for -- $225,000, just after Christmas -- was well below the amount the July 2 players received. For a kid who had spent his youth working on his father's fishing boat for money and food, though, it was a start, and as his velocity improved and his slider sharpened on the climb up the organization, the young prospect became a star in the waiting.

So when the sailing got rough for Severino in 2016, it was something totally new. "I never had a bad year," he says. "That was the first time I had a bad year, so everybody was asking me, 'Are you going to move to the bullpen?'"

He headed home to the Santo Domingo apartment where he now lives with his wife, Rosmaly, and daughter, Abigail. He rested some, watched a lot of video, and resumed working with his personal trainer and coach, Cristian Nuñez. He wanted to get back at it. Spring Training couldn't come soon enough.

Severino's 2017 season started with a dud in Baltimore, but everything improved from there. By midseason, he was a first-time All-Star, joining four teammates for the festivities. "They can pinch me," he said in Miami, "because I'm here." A year after going 0-8 in his 11 starts, the 23-year-old went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 230 strikeouts. He was an easy choice to start the Oct. 3 do-or-die elimination matchup against the Twins.

Severino was 23 years old, and the hiccups from 2016 aside, on the path to becoming an unmitigated success. Then the Wild Card Game started and, some 14 minutes later, the direction of that path once again came into question. But the rally that sent the team to the Division Series spared him the indignity of another unsettling offseason. "That Wild Card game was a microcosm of what he went through [in 2016]," Sabathia says. "He came back the next year and almost won the Cy Young." And so, as Game 4 against Cleveland approached, the pendulum halted once more, suspended in place, liable to go in either direction.

***

A hard drizzle fell as Severino looked out from the mound, and while that might seem oxymoronic, just go with it; nothing about the Yankees' postseason to that point made sense anyhow. The Wild Card Game mania, followed by two crushing losses in Cleveland -- the second turning on, of all things, a missed call that probably should have been reviewed -- and then a 1-0 victory with the deciding run coming on a Bird moonshot against the oft-untouchable left-hander Andrew Miller.

Video: CLE@NYY Gm4: Severino K's nine in strong outing

If the lead-in to the Wild Card Game was full of joyful hysteria, this felt different. It was the team's third elimination game in a week; best-case scenario, there would be another coming two days later. Hearts up and down the tri-state area were working too hard.

"Your whole season is coming down to one game," Sonny Gray says, describing the emotion of winner-takes-all baseball. "You're trying to treat it like one game, but at the same time, you're kind of living and dying with each pitch."

Among qualified starting pitchers last year, Severino topped the charts with a 97.7 average fastball velocity according to FanGraphs; a huge part of his success relied on being able to maintain his velocity deep into games, to approach and exceed triple digits in the middle innings and later. But as Francisco Lindor watched the first pitch come in outside of the strike zone, the 96 mph reading on the radar gun told its own story.

Adrenaline had gotten the better of Severino before the Wild Card Game, and he had tried to lean into it by firing his first pitch 100 mph. We know how that one ended. So the game plan against the Indians, developed with catcher Gary Sanchez and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, was to tone everything down. "You don't have to do more," Rothschild explains, a few months after the fact. "I thought in the Wild Card Game, he was trying to take it all on his own shoulders, and you don't have to do that."

Lindor worked a strong at-bat, eventually popping out to center field. Then Jason Kipnis took 98 middle-away for a strike, swung through a 92 mph change-up, and whiffed on a slider down in the zone. Two outs, already more than he recorded in the Wild Card Game. Jose Ramirez flew out to the warning track, and the inning was over. Severino walked calmly and cooly back to the dugout, 18 pitches into what would become, accounting for context, the best start of his life.

"To me, I wanted him to have a quick inning," Sanchez recalls. "I wanted to get a 1-2-3 from him. He did that, and by doing so, it gave him a sense of confidence. After that, I noticed he settled down. He was back to the good Severino I had seen the whole season."

By the end, fans were chanting his nickname -- "SE-VY! SE-VY!" -- and he wore his confidence for all to see. "Everything was working," Severino says. "My slider was working, my fastball; everything was great." Fired up, he flexed and screamed after a seventh-inning strikeout, and when a groundout to shortstop on his 113th pitch ended that frame, he sounded his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the Bronx. Severino had struck out nine batters, walked one and allowed three earned runs. Statistically, it wasn't his greatest start of 2017. In reality, though, he had seized the day. It was everything his teammates wanted and needed, and probably more than anyone would have had a right to expect six days earlier when Severino sat in the clubhouse, reeling after his 29-pitch Wild Card Game outing, unaware that his team was about to swing the pendulum back.

***

There's an idea of what you are and aren't supposed to say within the confines of a baseball clubhouse, and any Yankees player will dutifully deem Severino's waking Wild Card nightmare a fluke. It was just one game, you'll hear now, the same as you would have heard the night it happened, and you'll know why they're saying it and for whose benefit. Maybe the constraints of a life in baseball mean that they even believe it. But the sentiment has to be false because brains don't work that way. It was only one game because he got another game.

"Luis Severino -- fortunately, because his team was able to come back -- was given opportunities within that year to not just rest on that one start," says Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, an analyst for FOX and MLB Network who was in the booth for Game 4. "That would have been difficult."

As Severino's morning workout concludes, his sweat-drenched shirt clinging to a massage table where Nuñez has just given his muscles one more grind, the pitcher moves on. Abigail is about to return from her first-ever day of school, and Severino's wife and mother are preparing a nice lunch back at the apartment in the Don Honorio neighborhood of Santo Domingo. So much of the pitcher's life is about baseball, but offseasons are also for family and for the work that goes into starting up a charitable foundation. His agent, Nelson Montas de Oca, says that in previous years, even as a young Minor Leaguer, Severino was his only client who would ask for help setting up English classes during the winter.

Severino won't dwell on the twist of fortune that saw his incredible season get the reprieve it unexpectedly needed; it would have been tough to stomach, he acknowledges, "But thank God the team helped me and we won."

When he returns to the United States -- to his formal baseball activities, then Spring Training, then the 2018 season -- he'll step into a new and unfamiliar state. Severino managed, in the course of one week, to have his worst moment as a pro and his best. But inherent in that reality is a chronic imbalance; the rest of his career is about making sure that the worst moment stays the worst, while the best moment eventually gets surpassed.

A pitcher as smart as Severino probably didn't need the Wild Card horror to know how tenuous one's time on the baseball pedestal can be, but he got the lesson anyhow. The future is his to write.

"What he did for himself personally will be forever one of the greatest lessons he'll have, more than any regular season failure or success," Smoltz says. "A player, when he knows he can overcome and deal with one of the biggest moments and not one of the best feelings, the next thing you know is that no moment becomes too big and no outing is too bad to not come back from. … Now he's got something in the back of his hat to go, 'I've already been through that. I already know what that feels like. When I get revved up, here's what I can do.' I can tell somebody that, having experienced it my whole career and postseason; telling somebody is one thing, living it is another. And being prepared to handle it is another."

So Severino works, and he looks forward. "It feels different," he says of the new calendar year, "because everybody this year especially wants to go deeper than we did." He carries with him a hard-earned moral: Success can be fleeting, and you need to guard against it. But failure can pass, as well.

"He's been through a lot at the Big League level," says new manager Aaron Boone, who was a broadcaster in the ESPN booth during the Wild Card Game. "Came up, had some success, failed a little bit, was back and forth to the bullpen, and then we saw it all get put together last year. But the thing you get from being around him is, he's not satisfied with that. You can feel a little of the chip on his shoulder. 'I want to go out and be more than that.' I think he's really driven by that. That's exciting to see -- the hunger in a young player that's already had a monster season."

Severino is lucky. It was just one game. Now armed with enough knowledge and experience to handle any obstacle in his way, Severino could be looking at a smoother ride ahead, a pleasant possibility if ever there was one.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Luis Severino