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April 18, 2019

James Paxton, Yankees have to mentally prepare for heightened pressure to defeat Red Sox

April 15, 2019

CC Sabathia looked out across the Yankee clubhouse. There were about 25 reporters scattered throughout the room, outnumbering the half a dozen players at their lockers.

He then looked back at the reporter and asked “You serious? This is not normal.”

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“Guys who come up here (in the Yankees organization) guys like Aaron Judge and (Brett Gardner), they think this is normal,” Sabathia said with a laugh, “This is not normal. The media here? This isn’t happening in Cleveland or Seattle on a Sunday in April. It’s everywhere here. It’s all around you. Everything is magnified by that. I call it outside noise, but you can’t escape it.

“This is not normal.”

CC Sabathia steps out for his first start of the season. (Al Bello/Getty)

The expectations and the scrutiny in the Bronx can be hard to handle for any newcomer during a weekday series against the Tigers, let alone how they will be Tuesday night when the defending World Series champion Red Sox come to the Bronx.

James Paxton, scheduled to start against Chris Sale in the first of the two-game series against the Yankees’ American League East rival, knows all too well the pressure of coming into the Bronx.

He is already dealing with it in his first year in pinstripes.

“I’ve talked to guys and I think that it can be challenging, coming to New York as a new player and kind of learning how to handle that mentally. And I’ve been working on that,” Paxton said Sunday. “I’ve talked with some people, talking with teammates and trying to get some advice on how to handle that the best way.”

Paxton has struggled in his first three starts with the Yankees. The left-hander is 1-2 with a 6.00 ERA, having allowed 10 earned runs in 15 innings pitched. He has 19 strikeouts, but has also allowed three home runs and walked six.

While Paxton said he thought he had a mechanical issue tipping pitches in his last start, he admitted to struggling with the mental side as well.

“I think I’ve been trying to do too much, trying to be better than I am. And I just need to realize that I’m good enough, you know, being who I am or who I was in Seattle,” Paxton said. “And just my natural progression instead of trying to go out there and be something that I’m not.”

The Yankees traded for Paxton this offseason because they believed he had the potential to be dominating for them. In parts of six seasons with the Mariners, Paxton flashed that potential but has been derailed by injuries. This winter, he worked with a nutritionist and trainer to get physically ready for the challenge of playing in New York.

James Paxton.
James Paxton. (Michael Wyke/AP)

He has always worked with a sports psychologist, so he addressed the mental side of that too.

But Sabathia, who came here after eight years in Cleveland and a stopover in Milwaukee, said this isn’t anything you can learn in a text book or by just talking about it.

“You have to go through it. You can talk about it, but you have to experience it to understand it,” Sabathia said. “Everything is magnified. It’s there. It’s not something you can ignore or pretend it’s not there.”

And that only gets magnified when the Red Sox come to town, said Zack Britton, who saw it after coming to New York from Baltimore last season.

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“I don’t know if it was anticipation, because that’s all you hear about, but I felt like it was a playoff game, maybe a milder version of a playoff game,” said Britton. “The fans are in every pitch with Baltimore and we’d play the White Sox, there would be moments, with guys on or late in the game, it would get really, really loud and you would feel the stadium.

“With Yankees versus Red Sox, you feel that throughout the course of the game. A lot more heckling from the fans. But it’s fun.”

Paxton has had conversations about it with Sabathia, leading up to Tuesday’s start. The veteran reminded him that the Red Sox game, while magnified and with more noise around it, is just one of 19 games the Yankees will play against them.

“It’s a big start, but so is the next one you have against them and so is the one you will have in the playoffs against them,” Sabathia said with a laugh. “Every game is a big game. Like I told these guys last year, every game is big until you can’t play tomorrow.”

And Paxton is taking that all in and trying to find a comfort zone. Aaron Boone, who came here as a player after seven seasons in Cincinnati, understands that.

“I think Paxton will be more than fine. I think he has the right mindset, the right focus. He’s got, most importantly, the equipment to go out there and be really great at this,” Yankee manager Aaron Boone said. “More importantly he’s in a good place. Excited for him to get back out there.”

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