The ice pack on James Paxton’s left knee was as bulbous as a watermelon and just as cumbersome as he hobbled across the clubhouse Sunday morning. The Yankees hurler plopped down on a couch in front of the high-definition televisions and began following his doctor’s orders: rest.
That’s no easy request, considering that Paxton was being counted on to replace the injured Luis Severino at the top of the rotation. But like so many other Yankees this season, Paxton is on the sidelines hoping for a speedy recovery, wondering what went wrong.
Despite his ability to overwhelm hitters, Paxton is no stranger to breakdowns. The left-hander never threw more than 160 ⅓ innings in six seasons with the Mariners, sustaining injuries to a forearm, an elbow, a pectoral muscle, a latissimus and a left finger. But the knee had never been a problem for Paxton, at least not before he made four starts in the Bronx in 2019.
Is there a connection? Paxton believes there might be. After brainstorming with the pitching coach Larry Rothschild and some of his fellow pitchers, Paxton suspects the mound’s hard, sticky clay could be the culprit. He theorizes the lack of “give” is irritating the knee as it rotates upon release of the ball. It’s only a hypothesis, but the Yankees seem willing to indulge Paxton. They plan to sprinkle a softer, looser compound near the rubber when Paxton returns from the injured list, which will allow for freer movement.
“We’ll do whatever we need to stop the cause of the injury,” Rothschild said. “You don’t want the area too loose, because a lot of guys like it firmer. They prefer it that way. But we’ve already talked about this: whatever it takes.”
In the meantime, Domingo German contributed another masterpiece to his surprising season, limiting the Twins to one run in six and two-thirds innings in the Yankees’ rain-shortened 4-1 victory over Minnesota on Sunday. The right-hander said he had gained confidence every step of the way, prompting Manager Aaron Boone to say, “He’s been huge for us.”
Reliever Adam Ottavino went one step further, flatly calling German “our ace.”
Paxton is hoping to regain that job description, although he has more pressing issues to deal with right now. He made it clear that he wasn’t criticizing the Yankees’ grounds crew, but he nevertheless said that no other mound in the big leagues had taken such a toll on his knee. It was swollen and filled with fluid after just three innings against the Twins on Friday — Paxton’s shortest outing of the season.
Poor weather forced a rain delay in the bottom of the eight inning on Sunday and the game was eventually called in the Yankees’ favor, 4-1.CreditVincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
It was the culmination of weeks of nagging pain that never fully resolved, even though Paxton and his elite fastball were averaging more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings. But the last start was by far the worst, as Paxton’s mechanics were so out of sync that he said, “I was flying open with my front shoulder, which was putting my arm at risk.”
Paxton then explained what had been going wrong each time he pushed off the rubber.
“It feels like my foot is getting stuck as I’m turning, and that’s putting pressure on my M.C.L.,” he said in reference to his medial collateral ligament. “And the only place I feel it is on the mound here.”
With only one career start at Yankee Stadium before being traded here, Paxton’s logic is bolstered by the process of elimination. “This is really the only thing I can think of,” he said.
That theory made sense to another Yankee with knee problems.
Although C. C. Sabathia is battling arthritis in his right leg, which is his landing leg, he said: “I know exactly what he’s talking about, I’ve felt it before. The way the mound is here, you can feel like you’re stuck in the ground. It’s something you have to work around.”
Paxton isn’t the only Yankees pitcher battling through a bizarre injury. Severino still doesn’t know how or why he sustained a partially torn lat while he was already on the I.L. “No idea,” is what he said when asked how his condition had worsened while he was being treated for an inflamed shoulder in March. General Manager Brian Cashman investigated the matter, but he too remains flummoxed. There is no projected date for Severino’s return.
Paxton’s timetable is less daunting. He is expected to miss only one start after receiving a cortisone injection and is now simply icing the knee and resting — “going back to square one,” he said. “Hopefully this will calm it down.”
If the Yankees are lucky, Paxton will be back in time to face the division-leading Rays this weekend. It will be the Yankees’ most important series of 2019, and even more significantly for Paxton, he will be pitching on the road. But the Yankees will return home the following week, which means Paxton will be looking to unravel the mystery sooner rather than later.
He will get help from the substitute dirt and from Rothschild’s suggestions about smoothing out his hip rotation. Then there is the time-honored remedy of simply crossing his fingers and hoping for the best.
“I hear what he’s saying about the mound,” J. A. Happ said of Paxton. “If it means using different dirt, sure. He’s a really good pitcher. Obviously we need him.”