Yankees get desperately needed lift from struggling James Paxton

NEW YORK — The New York Yankees desperately needed this.

Struggling left-hander James Paxton did too.

Two days after general manager Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees’ front office deservedly took heat for failing to bolster the starting rotation at the trade deadline, Paxton stepped up and delivered six strong innings against the same Boston Red Sox lineup that had lit him up in his previous start.

The 30-year-old southpaw allowed just two runs on two hits and struck out six, and the Yankees increased their AL East lead over the third-place Red Sox to 11.5 games with a 4-2 victory over their hated rivals on Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

“I didn’t make as many mistakes. And the ones that I did make they didn’t hit over the fence,” said Paxton, who had surrendered four homers to the Red Sox on July 26 at Fenway Park — and saw his overall ERA rise to an unsightly 4.72 as a result.

“I feel like his focus and intent to go out and get some results and go deep into a game and get us a win is hopefully something that is good for him moving forward,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Paxton, who picked up his first win since June 21.

It didn’t look promising early on. Paxton’s outing began the way many of his previous ones have — poorly.

With two outs in the first inning, he missed with a cutter middle-in, and Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez smacked it to left for a two-run home run — the 11th homer Paxton has allowed in the opening frame alone this season. His ERA in the first — a staggering 11.37.

New York Yankees starter James Paxton pitched six strong innings on Friday. (AP)

But Paxton rebounded after Gleyber Torres connected for a game-changing grand slam in the bottom of the inning, posting five consecutive zeroes and utilizing his fastball-cutter-curveball combination to produce a season-high 20 swings and misses.

“It’s a little fluky, because again I mean I thought he threw the snot out of the ball in the first inning,” Boone said. “He missed with a cutter — and instead of a foul ball or a hard out or a base hit — it’s a homer so it’s like, ‘Ugh, here comes the story again.’ But if you’re watching the game, I thought he threw the ball great and his stuff from the get-go was good. They just happened to hit a mistake over the fence. Crazy.”

Added Paxton: “Honestly, I don’t have the answer for [my first-inning struggles] right now. I’m continually trying to figure that out. Just keep on battling.”

Paxton has mostly failed to live up to expectations since being acquired by the Yankees in a blockbuster trade this offseason. That wasn’t the case Friday.

“I haven’t pitched very well here at all, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that I haven’t been very good,” Paxton told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “But I’m working on getting back to where I feel like I can be.”

The Yankees’ beleaguered starting rotation

The Yankees (69-39) came into Friday night’s game with a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, but their beleaguered rotation remains a massive question mark.

Luis Severino, who hasn’t thrown a single pitch in 2019 due to a lat injury that has featured multiple setbacks, could get back on a mound on Aug. 9 in Toronto. A timetable for his return, however, remains uncertain. As does whether he’ll come back as a starter or reliever.

Masahiro Tanaka (4.78 ERA) continues to fight inconsistency and his splitter, though his postseason success in the past provides some comfort. Domingo Germán has managed to go 13-2, but he could face an innings limit at some point. And veteran J.A. Happ has a 5.19 ERA. Meanwhile, CC Sabathia’s ERA is 4.78, and he’s still a couple weeks away from returning due to his latest knee issue. Also, highly touted prospect Deivi Garcia will serve as a bullpen option if he’s promoted in September.

All of that uncertainty left WFAN hosts to ask Cashman in a radio interview earlier Friday if he had any regrets about not signing free agent Dallas Keuchel, who ended up with the Atlanta Braves. The Yankees were slightly outbid by the Braves for the southpaw’s services.

“We put our best foot forward on Keuchel, and if Keuchel wanted to be here, he would have come here,” Cashman responded. “If this is the place he wanted to be, he would have demanded for his agent [Scott Boras] to call us directly back and say there’s just a million and a half [dollars] or whatever the numbers was of separation and I’d rather be here in New York versus in Atlanta. That never happened.”

Regardless, a fan base that hasn’t seen a World Series title in The Bronx since 2009 was in full-on panic mode while seeing Marcus Stroman end up in Queens, Trevor Bauer end up in Cincinnati, and Zack Greinke end up in Houston. Meanwhile, Madison Bumgarner stayed put in San Francisco, and the Mets and Yankees unsurprisingly couldn’t agree to a trade for Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler.

Masahiro Tanaka continues to fight inconsistency and his splitter. (Getty Images)

It left the Yankees with having to hope that Paxton can keep it up. That Tanaka can figure it out. That Severino can get healthy. That their power bullpen can continue to dominate. And that they can manage to collect 27 outs, somehow, someway, on a nightly basis.

If not, maybe their relentless offense can continue to carry them. Because regardless of whether someone is slumping (Aaron JudgeAaron Hicks) or injured (Gary SanchezGiancarlo StantonLuke VoitDidi Gregorius), it simply hasn’t mattered.

Home-field advantage come October seems imperative. And likely not having to play in the wild-card game for once will be huge.

But ultimately, it could come down to starting pitching — and whether James Paxton and Co. can keep stringing these types of starts together when it really counts.

Just like Paxton did on Friday night.

“We’re really confident in the guys in this room,” Paxton said. “And we’ve also got guys coming back that can make a big difference. We’re very talented and very motivated. I think the guys in this room can get it done.”

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