|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
NEW YORK -- It was hard to forget the reports of how five days ago a frustrated CC Sabathia sat on his locker room stool in Tampa after getting roughed up in his most recent start and had a muted conversation with Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild that neither of them cared to detail afterward.
Now Sabathia was back on the mound Friday at Yankee Stadium. He had the considerable chore of having to outduel Boston's Jon Lester, and it was a dead heat regarding which question surrounding the Yankees was louder.
The fears that the Yanks' five straight losses, four of them to the lowly Mets, were a sign they were finally falling into the mediocrity some had predicted for them?
Or the worry that Sabathia has too many innings on his arm to ever find great life on his fastball or be the Yanks' slam-the-door ace again?
|CC Sabathia pitched 7 1/3 strong innings against the Red Sox on Friday.|
The concern about the way Sabathia was getting knocked around this season -- not just that he was lugging around a 4-4 record -- had gotten so persistent by Friday's series opener at the stadium against the first-place Red Sox, Yanks manager Joe Girardi didn't even try to revive what had started out as the team's 2013 company line about his struggling ace. After what happened in Tampa, there was again no more talk that Sabathia's upper 90s fastball might come back once he got deeper into the season. Or that once he'd had a little more time to build up his surgically repaired left elbow, he would be his old self. You just wait. You'll see.
"Right now he's been a pitcher in transition. ... The 96, 97s [on the radar gun], we're probably not going to see," Girardi said.
And then -- what was this? -- Sabathia went out Friday and got strikeouts on four of the first six outs he recorded.
He mowed down the Red Sox in order for three straight innings after the Yanks staked him to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second.
He even touched 94 mph again on the radar gun while lifting the Yankees to a slump-snapping 4-1 win.
Sabathia has long been used to being a stopper for the entire Yankees team. And now he was doing a little feel-good streak-busting for himself, too.
He's admitted his rocky 4-4 start got to him at times. But not because he had lost faith in the "pitcher in transition" he is, or even because the concerns about his missing velocity had become such an obsession that, just the other day, general manager Brian Cashman was actually asked on the radio whether Sabathia should gain back some weight after reporting to camp in what Cashman termed the best shape of Sabathia's career as a Yankee.
No. Sabathia was just bothered lately because, as he lamented after giving up eight runs in Sunday's loss to the Rays, "I'm not helping my team win."
And he was happy but still notably subdued Friday after he scattered six hits and struck out 10 in the 7 1/3 innings he lasted against the Sox on this 86-degree night. He changed speeds expertly and snapped off what he called the best slider he's had all season. He also didn't walk anyone.
All in all, he performed as if he was tired of being a pitcher whose results and command on the mound he didn't quite recognize. He said he followed through on his plan to "attack the strike zone" and be aggressive all night.
"It was a tough week," he said. "It was good to go out and give this team a boost. I always feel like that's my responsibility."
If Sabathia can return to being the ace he's been, it would make the Yanks an entirely different, more dangerous team, of course. The difference in their confidence and the buzz in the stadium as he got on a roll Friday night was noticeable. By the time he struck out Stephen Drew, then David Ross -- both swinging at sliders -- in the top of the fifth, the crowd was urging Sabathia to ring up another strikeout after he got to two strikes on Sox rookie center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., too.
And Sabathia froze Bradley with a 91 mph ball that nicked the outside corner.
A lot happened after that. Kevin Youkilis -- playing in his first game since returning from the disabled list, along with Mark Teixeira -- got a single to drive in the Yankees' third run. Girardi seemed intent on getting tossed -- and he did -- in the bottom of the fifth for wrongly arguing that Lester's throw had pulled Drew off the bag at second for a forceout. (Later, Girardi jokingly blamed hitting coach Kevin Long, who told him after the play, "You've gotta go out! Go go go!")
Even the misplaced fire felt good to the Yankees after the way they'd sleepwalked through their most recent two games against the Mets. They failed to even get a runner on base in their last 20 at-bats in that series, and 10 of those outs came on strikeouts. In fact, the normally patient Yankees failed to draw a walk in the three games leading up to Friday.
Now the sobering news: One bounce-back game for Sabathia -- even one as good as this one -- is still little cause to run into the streets shouting, "CC is back!" Let's wait until he strings a few together. But he did seem to remind himself of some things that are important for him to succeed. Then he executed them Friday. He said he was most happy with the way he got more swings and misses after not having many of those lately, either.
But although Girardi was as guilty as anyone afterward about stressing that Sabathia was better because his fastball was better (Girardi noted he hadn't seen Sabathia throw 94 mph all year before now), Sabathia insisted he saw it otherwise.
He was so indifferent about his fastball velocity ticking up that when asked whether he cared about it much at all, he answered no.
"Not as long as I don't feel hurt and I feel fine," Sabathia answered. "When I was younger, I did [care]. I thought that was why I was getting guys out. Now I know it's more location than velocity. So I try not to look up there [on the scoreboard] and see what I'm throwing. I try to go off swings."
For a night, anyway, it all worked. For his mood. And for the Yanks. Sabathia wasn't just a pitcher in transition -- Girardi's term -- but a dominant, winning pitcher again, too. Considering how great he's been in the past, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano paid him the ultimate compliment afterward.
"That," Cano said, "was the guy we all know."