If Houston’s A.J. Hinch, the American League manager in next week’s All-Star Game, was mulling whom to select as his starting pitcher in the exhibition, a convenient showcase presented itself on Thursday night when two of the best in baseball were pitted against each other.
Luis Severino of the Yankees and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland left Hinch with a compelling case — to pick Boston’s Chris Sale.
While the promise of an enthralling pitchers’ duel instead gave way to a pair of pedestrian performances, there was little grumbling from the Yankees, who bulled their way past for a 7-4 victory.
“I don’t think that’s how everyone had it unfolding,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “That’s baseball for you. That’s why you go out there and play it. Sometimes when you think it’s going to be so difficult for both sides to mount anything, both sides are able to really get contributions up and down the lineup. That was a good one to walk in here on.”
Boone, of course, was not here when the Yankees walked into a Champagne-soaked clubhouse last fall.
The victory that night bolstered the Yankees’ status as serious World Series contenders, and their win on Thursday carried at least one of the same themes if none of the stakes. Kluber was beset by the same hobgoblins that troubled him last year in the playoffs — yielding two home runs, one to Gardner and another to Didi Gregorius, who hit two off him in Game 5.
“The only flashback I had was when Didi hit a homer,” said Aaron Hicks, whose eighth-inning double off Kluber put the Yankees ahead to stay.
Still, Kluber was sharper and went longer than Severino, who lasted just five innings for the second consecutive game.
Manager Terry Francona, whose bullpen is tattered, stayed with Kluber into the eighth even with Gregorius leading off. Kluber walked Gregorius on four pitches and, after Giancarlo Stanton flied out, Hicks clubbed a 3-2 changeup off the center field wall. Gregorius, correctly reading that center fielder Greg Allen was not going to reach the ball, slid home safely ahead of Francisco Lindor’s strong relay throw. It was the last of Kluber’s 114 pitches.
Severino threw 94, and barely resembled the pitcher who has given so much ballast to the Yankees rotation, carrying a 14-2 record and a 2.12 earned run average into the game.
The hints came early. Lindor cracked Severino’s second pitch — a fastball — into the right-field corner. Severino was fortunate that he did not give up more than four runs, aided by catcher Austin Romine’s throwing out Jose Ramirez just before Edwin Encarnacion homered and Jeff Brantley’s hitting into a 4-6-3 double play just before Ramirez tied the score in the fifth with a solo homer. It could have been worse for Kluber, too. He had the bases loaded with no outs in the fourth after allowing the Yankees to take a 4-3 lead, but he fanned Romine before Neil Walker hit a liner right to Yonder Alonso at first base that turned into a double play.
Severino allowed nine hits — the most since he was knocked around by the Astros last year on the day All-Star selections were announced. “Maybe I shouldn’t pitch around the All-Star Game,” he said with a laugh.
Severino also struck out just one — whiffing the last batter he faced, Encarnacion, to equal a career low that he had not hit since Sept. 26, 2016, when he was ejected at Toronto after getting only three outs.
“I only struck out one batter today,” said Severino. “I’m not that kind of guy.”
After providing the Yankees with another lead, Hicks provided a cushion. He alertly stole third on reliever Oliver Perez’s lengthy delivery — something he said Boone had alerted him to look for — and scored from there when Greg Bird lifted a fly ball to left to put the Yankees ahead by 6-4.
Gardner provided more comfort when he homered off left-hander Tyler Olson in the ninth.
The winning rally was not the first sign of resilience from the Yankees batters on Thursday. The Yankees, trailing 2-0 in the third, evened the score on Gardner’s two-out, two-strike, two-run homer off Kluber.Gregorius belted a home run to center field to tie the score and Bird put them ahead by 4-3 when he drove home Giancarlo Stanton with a double.
With a comfortable lead, Chapman worked his first inning since leaving Sunday’s game with a sore knee. The first batter he faced was a familiar one — Rajai Davis, whose stunning home run in Game 7 of the World Series tied the game in the eighth inning. This time, Chapman struck him out.