TAMPA, Fla. -- CC Sabathia has thrown 13 straight scoreless innings over his past three spring starts. He has allowed eight hits over those three games, struck out 15, walked only three. He can say, with full confidence, "I don’t think I had an outing like the last two in spring training in a couple of years."
And he has done it all with a fastball that topped out tonight at 91 mph, average by major league standards and downright alarming by Sabathia Standards.
And yet, he is in the midst of what looks like a career reinvention, even if his most recent victims were the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins, two teams that bear no resemblance to the kind of monsters he will face regularly in the American League, and most importantly, in the AL East.
So how is he doing it? Simple. Instead of trying to throw the ball harder, as it seems everyone is dying for him to do, Sabathia is deliberately trying to tone down the V-Lo. "My changeup is the key to everything," he said "I have to use my changeup to be effective. When I got here that was my second-best pitch and last year I kinda got away from it, so I'm trying to get back to it."
Sabathia credited former Yankees video coordinator Charlie Wonsowicz with "screaming at me to throw it more" last season, a bit of advice he said finally stuck near the end of the year.
This year, besides trying out a new cutter that was taught to him by Andy Pettitte, Sabathia said he has gotten back to throwing his changeup as a swing-and-miss pitch, a weapon that will be even more vital now that his once blazing fastball has cooled.
"For a while, my slider was just as good, so I kinda got slider-happy," Sabathia said. "But in the same situations, I could have been using changeups. That’s something I need to be conscious of throughout the year."
Joe Girardi acknowledged that Sabathia's reluctance to use his change last season was a source of discussion between him and his ace.
"He was having a hard time with it last year," Girardi said. "It was cutting at times, and he didn’t have the feel for it. I think that’s probably why he got away from it. And I think because of some of the things that he went through over the last couple of years, with the knee injury that he had and the little cleanup with his elbow, he got a little bit offtrack with his mechanics. But his mechanics have been great. The action on his ball has been great. And that’s why we’re seeing success.”
Certainly, there are more reasons why CC has looked better this spring than he has for the past two. The 40-pound weight loss, for one thing, has taken the stress off his knee, which was operated on to repair a torn meniscus two winters ago. And last year, he was coming off elbow surgery that he claimed was not a factor. Only, in fact, it was. And oh yeah, there's the motivation to demonstrate that he's not a .500 pitcher or a guy with a 5.00+ ERA.
"I do feel like I have a lot to prove but it kinda is what it is," Sabathia said. "I wasn’t right last year. I wasn’t the same guy. But now, I feel confident, I feel strong. Hopefully I can carry this into the season."
Sabathia worked a solid seven innings Friday night, holding the Pirates to four hits and none after a couple of fourth-inning singles. He walked just one batter and struck out seven, including the last batter he faced, Jordy Mercer, with a fastball that clocked a modest 85 mph. Three times in the game, he topped out at 91.
"I don't even bother to look," he said of the radar gun readings that have been such a topic of discussion last year and again this spring. "I don't care. If I pitch like this and we win on April 1, I'll be happy."
So will the Yankees.
Captain Crunch: Derek Jeter threw a scare into the crowd -- and his manager -- when he fouled two pitches off his left leg in his first at-bat of the game. The first one hit him on the surgically-repaired ankle that cost him most of last season, and the second hit him on top of the foot. Both sent him hopping around home plate in obvious pain.
But after assuring the trainers that he was OK -- Girardi knows better than to ask him -- Jeter stayed in the game through seven innings, going 0-for-3 with two groundouts and a strikeout, but driving in a run with a fielder's choice in the second inning of the Yankees' 4-0 win over the Pirates. Jeter's spring average is .122 but he says he has been pleased with many of his at-bats.
"In spring training, you want to have good at-bats and you want to hit the ball hard, and I did a couple of times today," he said. "I would love to have locked in a couple of weeks ago, but the key is to be feeling pretty good toward the end of spring. I'm progressing that way. I like the steps I've made the last few days."
Jeter will not make the trip to Ft. Myers on Saturday but is scheduled to play against the Blue Jays at home on Sunday.
Running man: Girardi said Jacoby Ellsbury ran arcs on the outfield grass this afternoon and came through it "OK." The manager said the Yankees are targeting Tuesday night's home game against the Phillies for Ellsbury's return to the lineup, and said if all goes well, he might use Ellsbury as a DH in some minor league games next week to build up his at-bats before Opening Day.
CC on track for the opener: In case you doubted it, Girardi said Sabathia will start the season opener on April 1 against the Astros in Houston, and to keep him on track, will give him an extra day before his next spring start, on Thursday, March 27 against the Pirates (again!) in Bradenton. Sabathia's pitch count will be limited to 45 or 50 for that one, and he will start the regular season on normal four days' rest.
Tomorrow's Hiro: Masahiro Tanaka makes his fourth appearance and third start of the spring against the Minnesota Twins in a 1:05 p.m. matchup. Brett Gardner, Kelly Johnson, Eduardo Nunez and Francisco Cervelli are the only regulars scheduled to make the trip. The game will be televised on MLB Network and broadcast on WFAN.