WASHINGTON — It started quietly two winters ago. Then, slowly, word seeped out: Two Red Sox legends had decided to help a young Yankee.
Now, those whispers are about to lead to a lot of squirming and shouting.
Enjoying the best season of his career, Yankees ace Luis Severino led all MLB pitchers with 14 wins at the All-Star break. He is the best pitcher on a team that will have to get past the Red Sox to win the American League pennant. And it is with the help of two men synonymous with the Red Sox—Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz—that he is in position to do it.
"Let me tell you how this game goes," Ortiz said. "People sometimes get mad about you helping a kid, but it doesn't matter where he plays. No, no, no. Baseball is a fraternity. We are not worried about who is going to be who. We are more worried about getting the game better. I have recommended so many guys to Pedro; I couldn't even tell you."
Indeed, Ortiz, the longtime Yankees antagonist, is one of the reasons Red Sox fans have cause to worry this fall, for it was Ortiz who arranged for Severino to be tutored by fellow Yankees irritant Martinez.
"I see pitchers from the Dominican; you need to work on this—go to Pedro," Ortiz said. "Severino was one of those guys. We saw the talent that he has. We don't focus on him pitching for the Yankees. We saw a great Dominican kid with talent, and we helped. Just like Pedro had done it with tons of guys from so many different organizations.
"That's Pedro, man. That's who Pedro is. I am like that, too."
Ortiz hooked up Severino with Pedro in 2016, during Big Papi's final season. It was a disappointing year for Severino, who started in the New York rotation, was banished to the bullpen and finished 3-8 with a 5.83 ERA in 22 games (11 starts).
Severino was among Pedro's legion of distant admirers. And the admiration was mutual: Martinez, who appreciates good pitching as much as a foodie enjoys an excellent restaurant recommendation, watched Severino on television and in person. Like many others, he couldn't square Severino's 100 mph heat and filthy slider with the poor results.
"Big Papi … told me, 'I can see what he's doing. I can see the ball. He's exposing the ball,'" Martinez said. "Big Papi said, 'I want you to help this kid. I've gotten to know him, and he's a good kid.'"
One thing led to another. Martinez reached out, and he and Severino agreed to meet in the Dominican during the winter of 2016-17.
"I told him to be at the stadium at 1 p.m.," Martinez recalled. "And he was there at 11 a.m. because he didn't want to miss the appointment."
Having watched Severino closely on video, Martinez decided he could fix some of the things Severino did incorrectly. Pedro told Severino to move his hands closer to his body to conceal the ball longer in his delivery. He was pushing them out too far. Then they went to work on his changeup and other facets of his game.
"He taught me to hit the [catcher's] glove more, have better command of my fastball and secondary pitches," Severino said.
Martinez found his student to be a willing learner. "He was brave enough to take my advice, do what I wanted and maybe without authorization of the Yankees," Martinez said. "Sometimes, you just have to take chances.
"I was so concerned with him feeling comfortable, not getting hurt, but we needed to do some work. I said, 'With all due respect to the Yankees, I need to switch you to some things I think can help.'"
The two developed a rapport that now reaches into genuine friendship. Who would have guessed that: a Yankee and a Red Sox, after the overheated American League Championship Series battles in 2003 and 2004?
"He's a great man," Severino said. "A great man. I feel like I can talk with him for hours. Not even about baseball. About everything. If I have an issue, I will go to him and he will always have a great answer."
In some ways, baseball was merely the icebreaker for the bond that has grown between the two.
"We keep in touch. His wife and my wife actually have become friends as well. During the offseason, he lives in an area I love, really close to where my mom grew up [in the Dominican]. Everything points toward having a great friendship between the two of us. I love fishing. He loves fishing. That's what we do. We pretty much have the same habits, look out for each other. It is a perfect friendship."
Martinez isn't the only player for whom Severino has shown such respect, as Ortiz experienced when he met him.
Ortiz had learned of Severino from a friend in the Dominican Republic who lives in the area in which the big right-hander grew up.
"He told me one day, 'Hey, this kid that's in the minor leagues with the Yankees, he's a Christian kid, he's a homeboy, he comes from a really decent family. He's going to get called up at some point,'" Ortiz recalled.
Signed in December 2011 as an international free agent, Severino finally reached the bigs in August 2015. His debut, a start, came against…you guessed it, Boston. He pitched well, holding the Red Sox to one earned run and two hits in five innings before suffering the loss. The one earned run? An Ortiz home run in the fourth.
That was it for Severino against Boston until '16, and after one of those appearances, the next day the kid approached Ortiz.
"He said, 'Hi,' really respectful," Ortiz said. "I really appreciated that. Because in baseball, it's like in the military: That respect is always there. That's how it goes.
"I've had some people criticizing Pedro for doing what he did. If I'm Pedro, I would do that 100 more times. Because that's how you get the game better."
In 2017, his first summer after working with Martinez, Severino posted a breakout season for the Yankees, going 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA over 31 starts. He posted 230 strikeouts against only 51 walks.
Severino, 24, earned his second consecutive All-Star nod this year and, after a nifty catch of New York teammate Aaron Judge's home run while warming up in the Nationals Park bullpen in the top of the second, he zipped through a scoreless bottom of the second. Severino surrendered a leadoff double to Matt Kemp then whiffed Bryce Harper, induced a fly ball from Nick Markakis and whiffed Brandon Crawford. It was his second All-Star Game, and against the powerful National League lineup, he had a plan.
"I feel like everyone's got more than 20 home runs," he said. "So don't throw the fastball. Throw something else."
Last year, Severino became just the second American League pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1977 to post an ERA of below 3.00 with 225 or more strikeouts in his age-23 season. Clemens did it in 1986, when he was with…Boston.
"He's as good of a man as he is a pitcher," Martinez said. "The last person I referred to like that was Mariano Rivera. … That's a statement. I know Mariano as a person. Severino is equally as humble and lovable. He's very accountable, very responsible, very hard-working. There are not enough [good] words to say about him."
Even the Red Sox, who, ahem, employ Martinez as a special assistant to president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, understand.
"They're Dominican, you know?" Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts said of Severino and Martinez. "He looked up to Pedro when he was younger. He has some of the same stuff Pedro had at that age.
"Why wouldn't you want to learn from the best? You can't fault him for wanting to go to Pedro for advice."
From what he had heard of Martinez, Severino said it seemed natural to work with him.
"I wasn't surprised," Severino said. "He was helping somebody else. He wasn't looking at me as a rivalry. I'm happy that he did."
Always a pitcher/philosopher in his soul, anyway, Pedro says he's gotten no pushback.
"Everybody in the Red Sox organization is very respectful of what I'm doing," he said. "They know me really well, and they know that my heart is big enough to be shared with different players. The thing that makes it unique is, it's when I'm not working. It's my time off."
Severino isn't Martinez's only project. Over the past few years, he's also worked with Ervin Santana, Jeurys Familia, Hansel Robles, Edinson Volquez, Rubby De La Rosa and Jose Veras, among others.
All of this because he shares a philosophy with Ortiz: Pay it forward.
"I feel as a former player, as a Hall of Famer, my duty is to make the game better, to pass it along to the next generation," Martinez said. "I'm not going to keep the knowledge within me. Not only is it my duty, but it's a duty for everyone who plays the game.
"The fact that it's showing up in Severino more than anybody else—you can give him all the credit in the world. I only give him suggestions. He's the one who's done it."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.