Hours before Jhony Brito’s final start of spring training, Luis Severino checked in with the pitcher who ultimately replaced him in the Yankees’ rotation.
News of Severino’s latest injury, a lat strain, broke the day before, and everyone around the Yankees knew Brito’s start doubled as an audition. Everyone, that is, except for Brito.
The possibility of beginning the season in the majors “never crossed my mind,” Brito told the Daily News. “I didn’t think it was possible.”
The 25-year-old had never pitched above Triple-A, and he ranked 27th on the organization’s list of prospects. Brito assumed that, after already losing Carlos Rodon and Frankie Montas, the Yankees would add an experienced starter as teams made cuts at the end of camp.
Severino set the youngster straight and explained the opportunity.
“I just told him, ‘This is it, bro. If you impress today, you’re gonna make the team,’” Severino told The News, recalling a conversation the two had in the locker room at George M. Steinbrenner Field on March 26. “He was like, ‘No, they just called me up for a game.’ I said, ‘Bro, there’s nobody else. So you are the one. So just go out there and pitch and you’re gonna be good.’”
Brito didn’t just pitch that afternoon. He shoved, twirling 5.1 perfect innings against the Blue Jays.
The performance claimed Severino’s spot in the rotation, and Brito has since enjoyed his debut and endured his first bit of adversity while prematurely acclimating to life in the majors. Severino helped every step of the way before returning to Tampa for his rehab this past week.
The two right-handed Dominicans first met in 2016, when Brito and some other instructional league prospects received tickets to a Yankees game against the Rays at Tropicana Field. Severino posed with the 18-year-old that day, and the photo is the first post on Brito’s Instagram page.
“With the beast Severino,” Brito wrote in Spanish at the time.
Brito didn’t have much time to chat with Severino that day, but that changed in spring training. The two became well-acquainted, and Severino hosted Brito at his home in Tampa.
Brito already looked up to his fellow countryman prior to that. But after getting to know Severino, he feels he has a model for how to act on and off the field.
“There’s a big personality and a big person behind the baseball player,” Brito said. “And when you get to talk to him, you get to see that, you get to hear the stories of the things he does with his family and things like that. You look at him, and [he’s] definitely an example of a person and player to follow.”
Severino’s mentorship of Brito continued at the very end of spring training, just before the Yankees played one final exhibition game in Washington, DC against the Nationals.
The Yankees told Brito he was on the trip — and thus the Opening Day roster — but he had planned and packed for an assignment to Triple-A. So when Brito arrived at the Tampa complex before the team took off, his ripped jeans didn’t meet the team’s dress code.
Once again, Severino offered guidance. He also opened up his wallet.
“It was a very casual look, and he said, ‘No, you can’t travel like that in the big leagues,’” Brito said. “So he told me, ‘Let’s go shopping. We’re gonna go to the mall.’ He ended up taking me to Hugo Boss, and he bought me a couple of full outfits.”
Severino didn’t want to talk about the trip to International Plaza, which is just a few minutes from George M. Steinbrenner Field, as he didn’t want to toot his own born. But the 30-year-old acknowledged that he tries to help the Yankees’ young pitchers. Sometimes that means sharing what he’s learned over seven MLB seasons. Other times, it means covering a meal or taking someone like Brito on a shopping spree.
“We do stuff to help the guy, make him comfortable,” Severino said. “This is your family, apart from the DR, so just making him feel comfortable.”
Pitching coach Matt Blake told The News, “It’s helpful that somebody who’s walked those steps beforehand can help him understand what’s coming next.”
Brito appreciates all of Severino’s help, which also included a pep talk after the Twins jumped on Brito for seven runs in the first inning on April 13. Severino assured Brito that every pitcher has rough days, and he stressed the importance of moving on.
Brito rebounded on April 19 when he held the Angels to one run over 4.1 innings. On Monday, he’ll get another crack at the Twins in Minnesota.
Brito, who hopes to pay Severino’s generosity forward one day, owns a 5.40 ERA over four MLB starts, but the Twins outing is the only one that he’s allowed more than one run in. That was also the only Brito start the Yankees have lost so far.
By all accounts, Brito didn’t dwell on that poor performance. Instead, he broke it down with Blake the next day. Even before that, the Yankees raved about the neophyte’s poised demeanor, or “emotional stability,” as Aaron Boone put it.
“He’s been the same guy the whole time,” Boone added, even though Brito has pitched in several games with massive personal stakes over a short period of time. But no one would ever know from watching the kid before and during those games.
“It’s an ability to basically regulate his emotions and regulate his heartbeat,” Blake said.
Brito credited minor league coaches for teaching him that skill, but he’s been fine-tuning his craft on the mound since childhood.
The son of a carpenter, Rafael Brito, and a stay-at-home mom, Dilcia Felix, Brito is from a small neighborhood, Maranatha, in Sosua, a beach town in the DR’s Puerto Plata province.
Severino, who is from Sabana de la Mar, hopes to explore Brito’s hometown with him in the offseason.
Brito started playing baseball around age 7 and joined an organized league two years later. It didn’t take long for coaches to notice his right arm, and they pitched the family on a program focused on preparing young players for the pros when Brito turned 12.
Brito’s mom put the idea on hold so that her child could focus on school, but Brito joined a program in the capital, Santo Domingo, between ages 14 and 15. He signed with the Yankees at 17.
Brito climbed the Yankees’ minor league ranks fairly quickly despite the cancellation of the 2020 season, and he earned a look in spring training this year after recording a 2.96 ERA over 26 games at Double- and Triple-A in 2022.
With a changeup at the top of his still-developing arsenal, Brito has shown potential while staying level-headed through highs and lows. It’s unclear how many more starts he’ll make for the Yankees this season, as that depends on Severino and the other injured hurlers.
But the Yankees seem to have found some needed depth, if nothing else, in a pitcher who is ahead of schedule. Severino believes Brito’s future is brighter than that, though.
“He’s so confident out there. He’s young. He got the changeup; it’s unbelievable,” Severino said. “The more he pitches in the big leagues, he’s gonna get even better.
“I’m glad that he’s here. I’m glad he’s helping us win.”