NEW YORK — Luis Severino has never pitched in a post-season game in his life, at any level. If the Yankees host a playoff opener on Tuesday, they’ll hand the ball to their young ace.
Severino cruised through his final post-season tune-up, and Starlin Castro, Greg Bird and Aaron Hicks all homered during a four-run sixth inning, lifting the New York Yankees over the Tampa Bay Rays 6-1 on Wednesday night.
New York (89-69) improved to a season-high 20 games over .500 and remained three behind division-leading Boston with four to play. The Red Sox beat Toronto 10-7 on Wednesday.
Severino (14-6) struck out nine and allowed a run in six innings. The Yankees would host the AL wild-card game Tuesday if they don’t win the division. One season after being banished to the bullpen for ineffectiveness, the 23-year-old Severino is now lined up to start the potential elimination game.
"Last year they didn’t trust me to even start a regular game, and right now I have an opportunity to go and open the post-season," Severino said. "I feel proud of myself, and the team, too."
New York has won 11 of 12 at home and 18 games overall this month, its best September since winning 19 in 2009, the last year the Yankees won the World Series.
Tampa Bay (76-82) was ensured its fourth straight losing season.
Castro hit a solo shot off the back wall in the Rays’ bullpen to lead off the sixth, chasing starter Matt Andriese (5-5) and giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead. It was his 16th homer and second in two games.
"I feel really healthy," Castro said. "I feel really strong and just trying to finish the season strong."
Bird then homered off reliever Xavier Cedeno, giving New York its tenth set of back-to-back homers this year. Bird has eight homers this season, including five in his past 10 games.
Three batters later, Hicks delivered a two-run drive to left-centre, making it 6-1.
The Yankees have hit 27 home runs in their last 13 games and a major league-leading 235 overall.
Severino punched out Logan Morrison for his 230th strikeout this season, tying CC Sabathia (2011) for third on the franchise season list. Severino leads the majors with sixteen starts in which he has not allowed more than one run. He’ll finish the season with a 2.98 ERA.
"I have to be there to figure out how it’ll be," Severino said about a first post-season experience. "But right now I feel confidence in myself."
Aaron Judge lined a hard double to left in the fifth, scoring Jacoby Ellsbury and Hicks to put New York ahead 2-1.
A Rookie of the Year favourite and MVP candidate, Judge has at least one extra-base hit in seven straight games and has driven in 111 runs.
Adeiny Hechavarria broke a scoreless tie leading off the top of the inning, hitting a hanging slider into the left-field stands for his eighth homer.
Andriese allowed three runs, five hits and two walks over five-plus innings, striking out three. The right-hander is 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA in five starts this month.
"The main thing for me is to finish the year healthy. I threw 100 pitches tonight, which I hadn’t done since I came back," Andriese said. "It’s a good sign to prove that at least I’m healthy."
Four Yankees relievers combined for three scoreless innings, with Aroldis Chapman striking out one in a perfect ninth.
The Yankees held several mock interviews in the dugout following their home runs, using cups, water bottles and a plastic container full of sunflower seeds to serve as the microphones and camera in a skit the team’s official Twitter account dubbed The Toe-Night Show.
Ronald Torreyes (known as Toe) played the role of cameraman following Castro’s blast, with Didi Gregorius and Severino asking the questions. Although the equipment may be fake, the questions and answers are the real deal.
"Oh, yeah," Castro said when asked if his teammates actually respond. "They answer. They answer for sure."
Rays outfielder Corey Dickerson swung through a 1-1 fastball in the second inning, losing his lumber in the process. Dickerson’s bat flew into the stands along the first-base line just past the Yankees dugout, bouncing off a railing and landing about eight rows back from the field. No one appeared hurt, and stadium staff gave a quick thumbs-up.
A young girl was seriously injured by a foul ball a week ago at Yankee Stadium on Todd Frazier’s 105 mph drive into the lower deck behind third base. The injury prompted calls to extend the netting that currently protects fans sitting between the two dugouts.
Yankees: Judge made his ninth start at DH. Manager Joe Girardi said he will probably give his slugger a full day off before the regular season ends.
Rays: Rookie RHP Jake Faria (5-4, 3.33 ERA) starts on Thursday in place of Alex Cobb, who was shut down because of workload.
Yankees: RHP Sonny Gray (10-11, 3.31 ERA) will make his final regular-season start in the series finale. He is 4-6 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 outings since being acquired from Oakland on July 31.