Houdini's act puts polish on CC's gem

NEW YORK -- There were two exceptional pitching performances Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, one by the starter who threw 6 1/3 perfect innings, the other by the reliever who had to clean up the mess he left behind.

And the case can be easily made that David Robertson, who threw just one perfect inning, turned in the pitching performance of the night in the Yankees' 4-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

This is not to say that CC Sabathia wasn't brilliant, although to say so is merely restating the obvious.

What Sabathia did -- setting down the hapless Mariners, who had lost 16 straight games and had not a single .300 hitter in a lineup with a total of 39 home runs, or just 11 more than either Curtis Granderson or Mark Teixeira has on his own -- was not only not unexpected, but almost predictable.

For most of the game, the only pressure Sabathia faced was from the storm clouds that blackened the skies over Yankee Stadium from the fourth inning on, and the only question he needed to face was, would he get a chance to finish his gem before the rain washed it away?

What Robertson was asked to do, however, was something else entirely.

Sabathia pitched a perfect game for 6 1/3 innings and a one-hit gem for seven. Then, after having sat through a second rain delay of 14 minutes before Joe Girardi inexplicably sent him out to pitch the eighth, he proceeded to walk the bases loaded.

That was what Robertson was left with -- the tying runs on base, nobody out, and not just the game, but Sabathia's terrific performance on the line.

Even a man as accustomed to being asked to defuse bombs on a regular basis as Robertson is admitted that on this night, there was more pressure than usual.

"I did not want to lose that game for CC," he said. "He pitched way too well to get a no-decision or anything else in that situation, so I was amped up to get us back in the dugout."

Robertson has carved a niche for himself in such situations this year and earned a nickname among some -- "Houdini," which of course is a misnomer.

Houdini was a master showman who relied on tricks and paraphernalia to entertain his audience. Robertson goes out there armed with nothing but a baseball, his 190-pound body and a ton of guts.

"My job is to come in and get as many outs as I need to," he said. "It's as simple as that. I'm just trying to get outs."

More often than not, he gets his outs the old-fashioned way, via the strikeout. In fact, in the same game in which Sabathia had struck out seven consecutive Mariners, Robertson was on a unique kind of roll of his own, having struck out nine straight batters with the bases loaded.

Now, if any situation called for a strikeout, this one was it. And as usual, Robertson did not make it easy on himself. Facing pinch hitter Adam Kennedy, Robertson fell behind 2-0, then 3-1. There was no margin for error and nowhere to put Kennedy.

Then, he got a break from plate umpire Bob Davidson, who called the 3-1 pitch a strike even though it appeared to be a good 4 inches off the plate.

Next, he got a break from Kennedy, who swung at a pitch that even Robertson thought was ball four.

"Sometimes, you're going to get that," he said, somewhat sheepishly.

It gets worse. Next, he fell behind 3-1 to Chone Figgins, then blew a fastball by him to run the count full. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, a 96 mph fastball, he and the Yankees seemed to get what they desperately needed, a double-play grounder to third. But Eric Chavez, playing in his first game after more than two months on the disabled list, bobbled the ball and could only get the force at third, allowing a run to score.

Now, the Mariners had runners on first and second and Ichiro Suzuki, faded but still dangerous, at the plate. This time, Robertson got ahead of the hitter and stayed ahead, catching Ichiro looking at a four-seamer clocked at 95 mph.

"Strikeouts are the best outs in that situation, if you think about it," Robertson said. "No one hits the ball, runners don't score, everybody's happy. If you walk somebody, no one's happy."

His previous time out, on Sunday, Robertson had allowed three hits and two runs to the Oakland Athletics, forcing Girardi to bring Mariano Rivera in for a four-out save. After that one, the manager was moved to tell Robertson, "Now I know you're human."

That's how good Robertson had been to that point, going 10 consecutive appearances at one point this season, from June 11 to July 3, without allowing a run and surrendering just four runs in 27 appearances since May 27. His ERA of 1.54 is the third lowest among American League relievers this season.

And yet, it is possible that soon, Girardi will be telling Robertson something else when Rafael Soriano finally returns from the disabled list after being sidelined since May 17 with inflammation in his pitching elbow.

Brought over as a setup man and potential heir apparent to Rivera, Soriano did not pitch very well in the role before getting hurt, nor did he seem particularly happy to be in it, or, frankly, in a Yankees uniform.

He also did not pitch well in four rehab appearances leading up to his return, which is expected to come this week. And yet, Girardi refuses to rule out the possibility that when Soriano does come back, he will be handed the eighth-inning job again, and Robertson will be relegated to a seventh-inning role, a role he long ago outgrew.

"Well, the first thing is, let me get him back," Girardi said when asked what Soriano's role will be on his return. "We need to get him pitching well and get him comfortable. We feel we need him, and then we'll make those decisions."

If the decision is to move Robertson out of the eighth-inning role, it might be the most dubious decision this manager will make not only this year, but in his entire Yankees tenure.

Robertson was asked how disappointed he would be if, after all the jams he has wriggled out of and all the games he has salvaged for this team, he were to lose his spot to Soriano simply because that is the job Soriano was signed for this winter.

"To be honest with you, it's really not gonna bother me," he said. "I'm here to help this team win ballgames and get outs. I don't care if I've got to pitch in the fifth inning or the third inning. As long as we're winning and we get to where we need to be in the postseason, I'm happy.

"If it does change, I'll assume I'll be back where I was a little earlier this year. Just get ready for the pressure situations and figure out how to get out of them."

So far, David Robertson has almost always found a way out of them, and on Tuesday night, he got out of maybe the most pressure-filled of all.

But there might still be one situation ahead that he can't get out of, because in that one, the ball will not be in his hands.

NOTES: Curtis Granderson hit his 28th home run of the season in the fourth, a line shot just inside the left-field foul pole -- his first HR that way all season -- to provide Sabathia with an early run. The Yankees added two more in the fifth, on Chavez's RBI double and a groundout by Derek Jeter. They added their final run on Teixeira's 28th, to right, in the eighth. ... Postgame questioners tried to blame Sabathia's failure to get the perfect game on the rain delays, unmindful of the fact that after returning from the first, 30-minute delay, CC retired the next two batters he faced to end the sixth and struck out Suzuki, the first batter he faced in the seventh, before falling behind 2-0 to Brendan Ryan, who stroked a clean single to center on a fastball clocked at 94 mph. Still, the theory had its defenders. "Without the delays, there's no doubt in my mind he's going to throw a no-hitter," Chavez said. Said Teixeira: "I think he has a better chance [without the rain delays]." And Girardi: "We'll never know. But I think his stuff was better before the delay." ... Sabathia struck out two more Mariners, Dustin Ackley and Miguel Olivo, after Ryan's hit to run his total to a career-high 14. Added to Robertson's two and one by Rivera, the Yankees equaled the franchise record of 18 K's, recorded by Ron Guidry -- all by himself -- on June 17, 1978, against the Angels. ... The Yankees get a look at what will (probably) never be when King Felix Hernandez (8-9, 3.47 ERA), No. 1 on every team's trade deadline wish list, faces Phil Hughes (1-2, 9.47) in Wednesday afternoon's series finale, first pitch at 1:05 ET.