On Tuesday night, Luis Severino will step onto a major-league mound for the first time this season. With just 11 games remaining before the playoffs, the Yankees will welcome back their best starting pitcher after a long, frustrating saga that began with a shoulder injury and then was compounded by a mysterious latissimus dorsi ailment.
Even though the Yankees have been one of the best teams in baseball this season, Severino’s powerful right arm has been missed in a rotation that had endured a steady stream of injuries and uneven performances all summer.
“He could be a game-changer guy for us,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said last week.
But throughout this injury-plagued season, which has seen the Yankees set a major league record with 30 players spending time on the injured list, steps forward have frequently been met with steps backward. Those retreats have renewed a spotlight on the Yankees’ conditioning, medical and rehabilitation processes.
“We’re concerned about any time we lose players,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said on Monday. “We know injuries are part of the game, but we’ve had an enormous amount of injuries this year, more so than anybody else and more so than probably all of baseball history.
“So yes, it’s a massive concern, and it’s something that clearly we are looking into.”
There has been progress beyond Severino’s return: The standout relief pitcher Dellin Betances, out since spring training with injuries similar to Severino’s, made his season debut on Sunday. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the most potent hitters in the game when healthy, is expected to do the same at some point this home stand. He has played in only nine games this season because of injuries to his biceps, a shoulder, a calf and, most recently, a knee.
Others who returned from the injured list in recent weeks include infielders Thairo Estrada and Gio Urshela, first basemen Luke Voit and Edwin Encarnacion, and pitchers Ben Heller, Jordan Montgomery, Stephen Tarpley and C.C. Sabathia.
There has also been regression: The All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez sustained a left groin strain while stealing a base during a game last week in Detroit, his fourth such strain since the start of the 2018 season. After coming back, Encarnacion sustained a left oblique strain the same day as Sanchez.
While the ever-optimistic Boone said he hoped to have Sanchez and Encarnacion back before the end of the season, neither return could be assured. Should the Yankees claim the American League East crown as expected, their first playoff game wouldn’t be until Oct. 4.
The other injury steps backward included outfielder Mike Tauchman, a one-time fill-in who unexpectedly became important; he sustained a season-ending calf strain on Sept. 8 during a game in Boston, after noting improvement in the preceding days. Starter J.A. Happ received a cortisone shot, a go-to medication for the Yankees this season, on Friday for biceps tendinitis in his throwing arm. Happ, who was enjoying his best stretch of the season, told reporters after a start last week that he had been dealing with discomfort in his arm for a handful of starts. Boone said Happ could return to the rotation on Thursday.
And there was the oft-injured center fielder Aaron Hicks, who has been out since Aug. 3 and was recently prescribed more rest; Tommy John elbow surgery remains an option.
Some injuries are inevitable hazards of playing a contact sport — like Miguel Andujar’s torn labrum, sustained while he was diving to a base, or Encarnacion’s fractured wrist from being hit by a pitch — but these latest Yankees’ ailments have raised new questions: While the merits of a catcher’s being given the green light to steal can be debated, shouldn’t a professional baseball player be able to run 90 feet from first to second base without an injury? Is Sanchez predisposed to soft-tissue injuries in his lower body, or can the Yankees help him improve his training? Should Happ or Tauchman have been resting instead of playing, especially given the Yankees’ sizable division lead?
No injuries are welcome, but the weeks before the playoffs are an inopportune time for the Yankees to lose key power hitters such as Sanchez and Encarnacion, along with a sure-handed versatile outfielder like Tauchman.
And while Severino is finally back, mystery still surrounds how he hurt his latissimus dorsi in the first place. Severino, a two-time All-Star, has said he believes that problem and the shoulder injury occurred at the same time, while the Yankees have said they were sustained separately. Severino is one of a handful of players, including Betances and Stanton, who developed new health problems while under the Yankees’ rehabilitation care.
Cashman, who has expressed confidence in the team’s medical and training officials, investigated Severino’s injury but declined to disclose his findings. He later admitted one misstep in the team’s handling of Severino’s return. Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, said in June that the team would do a deep dive into all the injury data in the off-season and make changes if needed.
Asked over the weekend what he could do to try to avoid such injuries in the future, Severino was unsure.
“I work hard every off-season and try to get spring training in shape, and I was feeling good all year before that happened,” he said. “It happened with no reason. I’ve been asking the trainers, ‘What did I do to bring that?’ Just do the same thing I’ve been doing. Do exercises and try to be better in my work.”