Commentary

Shape up, CC, or doom DJ's farewell

For Derek Jeter's career to have a storybook ending, it starts with CC Sabathia

Updated: April 2, 2014, 2:42 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

HOUSTON -- The way Brian Cashman explained it, the New York Yankees would be insulting Derek Jeter if they tried to win one for the gimper. Jeter is the ultimate team-centric star, after all, an athlete who believes you play with championship-or-else urgency, 24/7, whether your legendary captain is retiring or not.

But still, giving Jeter a sixth World Series title and another float in a parade -- without having to share it with you know who at third base -- after a season ruined by leg injuries would represent the kind of goodbye gifts the shortstop would never forget.

"It would be a great way to send him out," Cashman said.

And the worst possible way to end his career, at least in Jeter's mind, would be to miss the playoffs altogether the way Mariano Rivera did last fall. The captain knows he doesn't really control the endgame, either. He knows his sport is as much about pitching as the NFL is about quarterbacking.

He knows the Yankees have almost no shot of surviving the American League East if CC Sabathia remains the shell of his former self that he was in 2013 and again Tuesday night in Minute Maid Park, where the same Houston Astros who lost 111 games last year and 324 over the past three ripped him for six runs and two homers over the first two innings of a 6-2 defeat.

Sure, the Yankees said it was only one game out of 162. But then again, they said Sabathia's 2013 was only one season out of 13, a season that saw the ace go 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA, the worst of his career by far. The left-hander lost weight, velocity and confidence. He was no longer the indomitable force Cashman chased around the 2008 offseason like the desperate executive he was, desperate because the Yankees had missed the tournament for the first time since the 1994 World Series was canceled by the players' strike.

"When I recruited CC," Cashman once said, "I turned into John Calipari."

Like Calipari, Cashman landed his blue-chipper. The GM gave Sabathia $161 million over seven years, and Sabathia immediately delivered a championship in return.

That was then, and this is most definitely now.

"I'm not worried about CC," Jeter said.

On truth serum, the captain would admit that puts him in the minority.

As it turned out, Jeter put his own scare in the Yankees in his very first at-bat of his final season, taking a Scott Feldman pitch on the forearm and letting everyone know that it hurt, and hurt a lot. But he survived it and ultimately managed a hard single to right for one of his team's six hits in a loss that was almost as dispiriting as the Mets' meltdown on Monday. Almost.

Feldman is a credible big-league pitcher, but even with a salary of $12 million, he should've been overmatched by the Yanks' $203 million payroll and a lineup that included Jacoby Ellsbury ($21 million), Jeter ($12 million), Carlos Beltran ($15 million), Brian McCann ($17 million), Mark Teixeira ($23 million) and Alfonso Soriano ($19 million). In fact, the combined wages of Sabathia ($24 million) and the newbie most likely to challenge his top-of-the-rotation standing, Masahiro Tanaka ($22 million), represent an investment that exceeds the entire Astros payroll ($45 million).

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
AP Photo/Pat SullivanCC Sabathia (0-1) allowed six runs on eight hits in six innings on Tuesday against the anonymous Astros.

It didn't matter. Feldman dominated, and Sabathia honored his strange history of unraveling on Opening Day. Houston's leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, launched a fastball over Ellsbury's head and up the hill in center, and soon enough the high-profile Yanks were kicking the ball around while the anonymous Astros were smacking it all over the yard.

"It just happened so quick," Sabathia said. "It just snowballed. Everything just happened really quick, and next thing I know I've got Guzman hitting a homer."

Jesus Guzman, that is, in case you needed to check your program.

Guzman lit into one of Sabathia's lame 89-mph fastballs to make it 4-0. L.J. Hoes, a 24-year-old outfielder making all of $502,000, would lead off the second inning with the second homer of his career, this off an 82-mph changeup. Sabathia threw 50 pitches in those two innings, looking nothing like the guy who closed out spring training on a tear.

"I think he's in a much better place this year than he was last year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before the game. "I really believe you're going to see a different CC."

The losing pitcher would explain that his pitches were "cutting" against Houston in ways they didn't in the spring, that he failed to extend on his delivery and to let the ball go out in front. Sabathia said he "backed off a little too much" out of a fear that Game 1 angst would compel him to overthrow. And yes, he agreed that season-openers always seem to do a number on his central nervous system.

"I think that's been the toughest thing for me," Sabathia said. "I do get so excited. I feel like a kid again, and I get excited. I'd sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day. So I think that's just some of the nervousness, the jitters, and wanting to start the season off good, so bad, that I end up pitching bad."

Only given what went down last season, it was hard to see Astros 6, Yanks 2 as a mere product of Sabathia's jitters. He's a 33-year-old man who has logged nearly 3,000 innings on his left arm, and who is not far removed from surgery to cut out a bone spur in his elbow. At some point, the undefeated forces of gravity and time will take Sabathia down.

"I'm definitely not going to pitch like I did tonight, the first two innings," he maintained. "I know I can pitch. I know I can get guys out. I feel great, so no, I'm not going to beat myself up about this."

But if this Sabathia is the Sabathia his team is going to see more often than not, he might be beating himself up in September. Tanaka or no Tanaka, the Yankees need a reliable Sabathia along for the ride.

If he can't measure up to his past standards, hey, it will be CC you later to Derek Jeter before the playoffs begin.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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