HOUSTON — In a business in which teams spend countless millions of dollars or give up young talent to secure an ace, there are very few pitchers who can legitimately have that label hung on them.
Luis Severino didn’t have to overpower the Astros on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park to move into the role of Yankees ace because he grabbed that title midway through last season.
Yet, what he did to a very strong lineup moved him from Yankees ace to one of the premier starters in baseball.
“For most of the night he was in cruise control,’’ Aaron Boone said of Severino, who beat the defending World Series champions 4-0 with a complete-game performance that didn’t appear to be a fair fight between his fastball, change-up and breaking pitches and the hitters. “It was a special outing.’’
There have been many no-hitters thrown with stuff nowhere near what Severino featured Wednesday. A fastball that opened at 96 mph and started to climb was clocked at 99 when he delivered his 108th pitch in the ninth. The changeup was effective and used liberally.
In the first route-going performance by a Yankee this year, Severino allowed five hits, walked one, whiffed a season-high 10 and improved to 5-1.
He is the first Yankee to fan 10 or more batters in a shutout since Mike Mussina struck out a dozen in a two-hit shutout on Sept. 24, 2002, against Tampa Bay. The 24-year-old right-hander is the youngest Yankee to fan 10-plus hitters in a shutout since Stan Bahnsen punched out 12 on Aug. 1, 1968 at Boston when he was 23.
The win was the Yankees’ 11th in 12 games and allowed them to stay two lengths back of the AL East-leading Red Sox in the AL East.
Severino’s sensational outing was backed by Giancarlo Stanton’s two homers off Dallas Keuchel that drove in three runs and an RBI double off Hector Rondon in the eighth.
Second baseman Gleyber Torres made a lunging catch in short center field with runners on first and second in the seventh and nobody out to keep the shutout intact.
“He came out of nowhere,’’ Boone said of Torres, who had two of the Yankees’ nine hits.
Boone started talking to Severino before the seventh, asking his ace how he felt. The manager repeated the question prior to the eighth and again before he sent Severino to the mound for the final frame.
“I didn’t think so,’’ Severino said when asked if he thought he’d be left in to finish the game. “When he told me I was happy.’’
With two outs, the bases empty and Aroldis Chapman throwing in the pen, Josh Reddick smoked an opposite-field double off the left-field scoreboard. In the dugout Boone never made a move for the steps. Severino rewarded Boone by popping up Alex Bregman with his 110th and final pitch.
Severino said he wasn’t motivated by falling apart in the fifth inning of last year’s ALCS Game 6 which the Astros won to even the series.
“Last year is last year, this year try to be better,’’ said Severino, who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting.
While the Yankees didn’t punish Keuchel, they beat their nemesis who started the game with a 6-3 record and a 1.59 ERA in nine career starts which includes three in the postseason. Keuchel (1-5) allowed three runs, six hits and fanned five.
Stanton was 3-for-20 and hitless in 10 at-bats when he drove a 2-0 pitch to right field for the Yankees’ first-ever homer off Keuchel. His seventh homer in the third made it 3-0, but despite the big night Stanton praised Severino.
“I just got good pitches to hit. I was on time, got the barrel on them. But Sevvy put us in a great situation. He did a great job,’’ Stanton said. “I wouldn’t want to be in the box facing him. He’s going to pound the zone at 100 miles an hour. If you’re on time for that, you’re going to get that 90 miles an hour slider. So it’s actually what we needed tonight. Another par-for-the-course outing.’’
Teams travel the universe looking to find what Severino has become at 24 and more often than not never get the pitcher who the Yankees watched deliver a gem against the best team in the American League.