NEW YORK -- For all the Yankees' talk about adjustments and reinvention and learning to live in the slow lane, the simple fact is this: CC Sabathia is not the same pitcher he was and will probably never be that pitcher again. And it's starting to get to him.
He virtually admitted as much after Friday's game with the Boston Red Sox, after which he said allowing a freak infield hit by David Ortiz, of all people, to unsettle him enough that two batters later, he served up a meatball to Grady Sizemore, and just like that a game the Yankees had been winning 1-0 turned into a 4-2 loss.
"As I've gotten older, I've been better at not letting those things get the best of me," Sabathia said. "But tonight, for whatever reason, I was pissed off and made a bad pitch."
The reason is pretty obvious: Sabathia knows that with a fastball that loiters at 89-91 mph, there is very little margin of error, especially against a team that can hit like the Red Sox. And when he makes a good pitch to Ortiz, the most dangerous hitter in their lineup, and still fails to get an out, well, that's where the frustration sets in.
"I guess it was a good pitch," Sabathia said. "[But] he got a hit."
Clearly it was a good pitch, an 0-2 fastball that was clocked at only 90 mph but was in a good enough spot that it locked up Ortiz, who could only take a checked swing at it. Still, he got enough barrel on it that the ball squibbed toward third base, and with the Yankees infield overshifted to the right side, it was easy even for Papi, who runs like a man carrying a piano, to make it safely to first.
That's when the wheels started to come off for Sabathia, who in the first five innings had held Boston to just one hit, a double by David Ross and a first-inning walk to Ortiz, while striking out six. Jonny Gomes had led off the sixth with a long solo homer on what looked like a good pitch, a fastball that got a little too much plate. He then struck out Dustin Pedroia on a sharp 2-2 slider.
But Sabathia allowed that dinky hit by Ortiz to take him out of his game, as he lamented afterward, "Before I knew it, it was 3-0 to Napoli."
That forced him to try to get over with a two-seamer, but Napoli lined it into center. And on the second pitch to Sizemore, a slider that didn't slide and so subsequently became a slow (80 mph), straight fastball, the game was lost. Sizemore clubbed it deep into the right-field seats for the three-run homer that was the death blow for CC and the Yankees on a night that Jon Lester was dealing for the other side.
“I think that’s fair to say anytime a guy has less velocity that there’s less margin for error," Joe Girardi said. "You throw the ball 95, 96 [mph], you’re going to get away with a few pitches that they’re going to foul off. Sometimes they’re going to have to cheat to get to certain pitches, and then they’ll be way out in front of the slider, maybe he pulls the slider into the stands or swings through it."
But Sabathia doesn't have that 96 mph heater to set up his slider anymore, and that has to be the most frustrating thing of all for him.
"Just one bad pitch, that’s it," said Francisco Cervelli, who caught Sabathia tonight. "Hanging slider and they hit a homer. This is the big leagues, you know? You miss, you pay."
Cervelli went on to say that other than that one bad pitch, he thought CC was "great." He even went so far as to take responsibility for not calming Sabathia down after Ortiz's "hit," although he admitted he did not know Sabathia was angered by it, nor did he see any signs of frustration as he began to pitch to Napoli. He also put some of the blame, rightfully, on the Yankees, who managed just seven hits -- an Alfonso Soriano solo HR and six singles, two of them infield hits -- and two runs off Lester in 6 2/3 innings.
They were all valid points, except for one thing: The CC Sabathia who signed here in 2009 didn't need a lot of run support or a catcher making excuses for him, and certainly would have shrugged off, or even laughed at, as unlikely a sight as David Ortiz beating out a ground ball.
Now, such things are, if not catastrophes, at the very least bad omens. Sabathia now looks like a pitcher who is going to need five runs or more a night to be a consistent winner, who is going to need all of his off-speed pitches to be sharp, all the time, and who is not going to be able to afford even a single mistake.
And he looks like the kind of pitcher who is going to need every out he can get.
“I thought he threw the ball pretty well," Girardi said. "It’s something you can look at and say he’s not really throwing the ball that poorly. He’s run into a little bit of bad luck. A check-swing really started that inning. But he’s thrown the ball pretty decent.”
Those are the kinds of things managers say about average big league pitchers who lose close games.
And they are the kind of things managers rarely had to say about CC Sabathia.
Now, it seems as if they are being said after every start, and Sabathia, for one, is clearly getting sick of hearing them.