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CC Sabathia likely the Yankees' fifth starter, by default

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Sabathia in danger of losing spot in rotation (1:48)

ESPN Yankees reporter Andrew Marchand discusses the battle between CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova for the final spot in the rotation. (1:48)

TAMPA, Fla. -- If it was based strictly on the numbers, the New York Yankees' fifth starter competition would have been no contest.

Bryan Mitchell, with a 2-0 spring training record and 0.61 ERA in 14 2/3 innings, would have been the hands-down winner.

But as many suspected, the contest really was decided by other numbers, such as years of service, World Series rings, Cy Young Awards and yes, zeroes on the paycheck.

So while the 24-year-old Mitchell will be coming north with the Yankees when they break camp this weekend -- manager Joe Girardi said "he'll be with us, one way or the other" -- the No. 5 starter's job Mitchell was supposedly competing for along with Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia has apparently been won by Sabathia.

Sabathia worked four serviceable innings Tuesday, allowing two earned runs on three hits, in a rain-shortened (five innings) 5-4 Yankees win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. And while the infamously reticent Girardi stopped short of anointing Sabathia the winner of the job, he did volunteer that the 35-year-old lefty's final Grapefruit League start was "his best outing of the spring."

"This is the hardest part of the year for me sometimes," Girardi said.

But it seemed the decision to keep Sabathia in the rotation was anything but difficult. Although Girardi said Nova's final start, scheduled for Wednesday against the Atlanta Braves at Lake Buena Vista, could still decide the competition, Girardi couldn't really come up with an answer when asked what Nova could possibly do to displace Sabathia, short of throwing a perfect game.

"Well, he won't be able to do that because he won't go nine innings," Girardi said. "I want to see what he's going to do (Wednesday)."

The manager then went on to acknowledge how "embarrassing" it would be for Sabathia, the 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner and 2009 ALCS MVP, to accept a demotion to the bullpen after 15 seasons and how difficult it would be for Girardi to have to break that news to him, although he weakened his case somewhat by comparing it to having to tell Eduardo Nunez that he had not made the team on the last day of spring training a couple of years back.

"I think that would be difficult for him, yeah," Girardi said. "CC has done a lot of good things in this game for a long time. Whatever decision we made, this is the hardest part of the year for me sometimes, these decisions that we have to make. You know that someone is going to be disappointed. You develop relationships, and it's difficult."

No mention was made of how difficult it would have been for GM Brian Cashman to tell his boss, Hal Steinbrenner, that the pitcher he is paying $50 million over the next two seasons would henceforth be working only out of the bullpen.

Add that to the fact that Sabathia -- who said he came to camp assuming he would be in the rotation -- said neither Girardi, Cashman nor pitching coach Larry Rothschild had ever raised the possibility of a demotion to him.

"I just approached it like same old thing," said Sabathia, who spent the entire month of October in a rehab center for treatment of alcohol abuse. "But I was more prepared this season. I felt pretty good. I’m excited. I think all the work in the offseason paid off, allowed me to get my stuff going earlier this year."

By the numbers, Sabathia and Nova finished in a virtual dead-heat: Sabathia was 1-3 with a 5.51 ERA with 20 hits allowed and 10 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings, Nova (so far) 0-0 with a 5.50 ERA and 18 hits allowed and 13 strikeouts in 18 innings this spring.

It is still difficult to know for sure how much Sabathia has left in the tank. He was 2-1 with a 2.17 ERA in five September starts last season after going 4-9 with a 5.27 ERA in his 24 previous starts. Sabathia attributed the improvement to his use of a brace on his degenerative right knee, an injury he says has not troubled him at all this spring.

Clearly, it seemed as if as long as Sabathia came through spring training healthy, which he has, the job would be his.

Meanwhile, Mitchell, who not only had the numbers but has his best days ahead of him, will be the one called upon to work on short notice, in difficult situations and probably on multiple occasions per week.

“He’s a guy that’s pitched extremely well," Girardi said of Mitchell. "The competition we said was between the three guys. (But) it’s kind of between the two guys. But he’s pitched well. He’s pitched well enough to maybe get that shot too, but (in all) likelihood, he’ll be out of the bullpen."

In reality, the competition included one guy, and the Yankees have to hope that in this case, the pitcher they saw last September is the pitcher they will see the rest of the season.