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Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Yanks can't bear less than CC's best

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- They played the standard "Rocky" music and clips on the Yankee Stadium video board in the ninth, another lame attempt to inspire the world's highest-paid underdogs. The 2012 Yankees were 0-46 when trailing after eight innings, and no Burgess Meredith blast from the past could stop them from falling to 0-47.

Joe Girardi was hot after this unseemly 8-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, hot about the offense and the defense and the pitching all at once. "Show me a manager or player that's happy about losing a ballgame," he said, "and I'll show you a loser."

CC Sabathia
CC Sabathia took the blame for Wednesday's loss -- and the Yankees ace deserved it.

Forever trying to avoid even the appearance of a confrontation, Girardi rarely uses loaded expressions when speaking in public. He rarely uses a word like "loser" in any context.

Only his New York Yankees were honest-to-God losers Wednesday afternoon, when Toronto bunted twice to score what would be the deciding run in the eighth. CC Sabathia was already done for the day when the Blue Jays went small ball against the bullpen, but it didn't much matter.

This defeat belonged to the big man and the big man alone.

"I feel like this game is all my fault," Sabathia said, and nobody felt compelled to argue with him.

The Yankees committed three errors, and wasted a couple of chances to blow the game open. But they did hand their ace leads of 2-0 and 4-3, and with the Baltimore Orioles closing hard in the division, with Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira out until who knows when, their ace did surrender those leads and betray his own job description.

As the leader of the rotation, Sabathia understood the terms of Wednesday's engagement. He knew his team needed this one before Buck Showalter's band of legitimate underdogs arrived Friday. He knew that the Yanks were hurting, that they might have to go the distance without Pettitte.

He knew that management didn't throw him that extra $30 million in the offseason for nothing.

Sabathia is being paid $122 million over five seasons to win, not to give his team a chance to win. There's a difference, just like there's a difference between an ace and a competent major league starter.

The Yankees are 23-22 since the All-Star break. In the rubber game of a home series against a lesser opponent, they needed something more than a competent major league starter.

"I don't carry it out to the mound," Sabathia said of the burden of a stopper trying to elevate a struggling team. "I always feel a lot of pressure to go out and pitch well and win games, but it sucks when you don't.

"We haven't been playing well, and today was a day we had the lead and I gave it up a couple of times. What can you say but everything is my fault?"

When it comes to accountability, Sabathia is as professional as they come. Two years ago, following lousy postseason starts against Minnesota and Texas, Sabathia punctuated a winning Game 5 effort against the Rangers by conceding his team had "bailed me out twice."

Last fall, after Justin Verlander outdid him in Game 3 of the American League Division Series and after Girardi blamed the home plate ump for his peep-hole strike zone, Sabathia would blame only himself.

He's good people, the kind of guy you'd want to see land a nine-figure deal.

But for the Yankees to have any chance at honoring their mission statement and winning it all, Sabathia has to be better than five runs and nine hits over seven innings against Toronto. Never mind that three of those runs in the third went into the books as unearned; Sabathia allowed five hits in that inning, failed to capitalize on a double play, and failed to bail out the team that has provided him heavy run support all year.

"You've got to give them credit for putting together good at-bats," the losing pitcher said of the Blue Jays, "but I need to make better pitches."

Sabathia got hurt in the third on a two-out, 3-0 pitch to Edwin Encarnacion, whose single opened the Toronto scoring. Sabathia got hurt again in the sixth on a full-count slider to Yunel Escobar, who launched the hanging pitch into the left-field seats.

"We're not used to seeing that with CC around here," Girardi said. Kelly Johnson followed with a single to right, and Sabathia lowered his head and angrily tugged on his cap as he trudged toward the first-base line, his body language drawing a visit from the catcher, Chris Stewart.

Sabathia said he felt no discomfort in the elbow that landed him on the disabled list, and that apparent small-picture truth doesn't delete this big-picture reality: The pitcher is operating with a lot of wear and tear.

He's an old and outsized 32. Sabathia has bled more than 2,500 innings from his left arm, and a long and noble history of working on short rest suggests he might break down sooner rather than later. As it is, this year's elbow and groin injuries will prevent him from matching his recent standards of 230-240 innings and 33-34 starts.

But the Yankees need him to hold up in the worst way. Pettitte has thrown only 74.1 innings since the 2010 All-Star break, and the more the 40-year-old talks about his uneasy dance through rehab, the more it sounds like he might lose this battle with gravity and time.

Phil Hughes has looked good in his past two outings, but Yankees fans have seen that movie before. Hiroki Kuroda is pitching to a 2.98 ERA, but in the postseason it's hard to imagine him as more than a best supporting actor.

This is CC's staff, his team, his burden to bear. "It's time for us to step up," Sabathia said, "everybody as a whole."

A certain somebody in particular. If the ace isn't an ace for the Yanks from here to October, they'll be wearing out that "Rocky" music in the bottom of the ninth.