- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- It's funny to think the New York Yankees could have this year's American League Most Valuable Player on their roster in Curtis Granderson and he might not even be the MVP of their team. But the question was worth asking Sunday after CC Sabathia followed up his workhorse victory over the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday by steamrollering the Toronto Blue Jays at the stadium shortly before Yanks manager Joe Girardi refused to make a decision on the Great Pitching Rotation Debate of 2011 -- this after he teased everyone in his pregame talk by saying they'd have to wait until after the game for his announcement.
Punting wasn't among most people's multiple-choice answers for what Girardi might decide. Most money was on Phil Hughes heading to the bullpen, and A.J. Burnett and that fabulous neurosis that always rides in a sidecar next to him avoiding the same fate, at least until the end of the month. Bartolo Colon was Girardi's possible surprise choice because of the way his performances have dipped lately. Colon has logged more innings this season than he has anytime since 2005.
The longer Girardi spoke after the game -- first about how "incredible" and gutsy Burnett was while allowing two runs in five innings against the Red Sox on Thursday after making a slight mechanical change in his delivery, and then about how Hughes looked more terrific than usual (ignoring how he again faded by the seventh inining) -- the more something else came into sharper focus: Saying who's the odd man out wasn't the most important news that could've come out of Sunday.
The sight of Sabathia pitching like Sabathia was.
See, Sabathia was coming off throwing 128 pitches in his first win in five tries this season on Tuesday in Boston. On Sunday, his 10 strikeouts and masterful performance in the Yanks' 9-3 win over the Blue Jays raised his season total to 211 Ks. It also gives him a fighting chance to break Ron Guidry's single-season team record for strikeouts by a left-hander (248), which is yet another way of saying Sabathia has thrown a whole lot of pitches in 2011.
All of which made the more legitimate curiosity at the Stadium on Sunday this: Was Sabatha's so-so August a sign that perhaps the unthinkable could be happening to him? What if Sabathia was wearing down for perhaps the first time in his career? How would he bounce back from that grueling six-inning night against Boston, which tied his career high for pitches in a single game?
The answer, as usual from Sabathia, was no worries. He gave up just six hits to the Jays in his 7 1/3 innings of work. He was still blowing 95-mph fastballs by the Jays when he left the game.
It's always been said Sabathia is beyond everything the Yanks could want in an ace. But he seems so consistently invulnerable to fatigue or long dips in form, the particulars of how much he affects the Yankees staff on the days before and after he pitches often feels almost taken for granted. The relievers often get a break. And Girardi has the luxury of giving other starters a blow as well. Which could make you wonder who's protecting CC -- until Girardi said after Sunday's game that Sabathia might, indeed, get an extra day off himself now that the rotation is staying at six for at least one more cycle.
"I'm fine," Sabathia insisted. "I'll do whatever they say, whenever they give me the ball."
Sabathia improved to 19-7 this season. Until Tuesday, he was 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA against the Red Sox and 17-3 with a 2.40 ERA against everyone else. Had things gone better in those Boston games, he'd be right there in contending with Detroit's Justin Verlander for the American League Cy Young Award and chasing a 25-win season of his own. This is Sabathia's third season with the Yankees, and yet he's already building the same sort of aura Mariano Rivera has had here forever. Like Rivera, it's actually more shocking when Sabathia looks human than when posts yet another terrific season.
And like so many other things about Sabathia, Sabathia for Yanks' MVP isn't mentioned much.
But it should be.
It's great that Granderson is a run-scoring machine and he's in a fight for the league lead in homers. Robinson Cano has been terrific filling in as the Yankees' cleanup hitter, too, while Alex Rodriguez has dealt with injuries.
But given the issues with the rest of the Yanks' starting rotation, Sabathia deserves some mention as Yankees' most important player. The Yankees always feel they can win any seven-game playoff series they're in, regardless of what's going on with the rest of their rotation, if they can set things up so Sabathia can pitch in three of them. It worked during their '09 World Series run.
When you think of it that way, this long-running fixation on learning Girardi's decision on the Yanks' other four starters starts to look like a side issue. Sabathia pitching like Sabathia again is the team's primary concern. And the Stadium crowd let him know it by giving him a partial standing ovation when he left the game with one out in the 8th after throwing 111 pitches in the 84-degree heat.
Girardi will get around to trimming the starting rotation eventually. He promised. And he'll probably rationalize about his reasons and stretch credulity even more as he goes, same as he did Sunday as he raved at length about Burnett and Hughes.
But in the meantime, why not appreciate how hard it is to do what Sabathia has been doing?
Most starters never come close to making the transition from most valuable pitcher to most valuable player for their clubs. But Sabathia makes it look possible, no matter how many pitches it takes.
"All I think about is throwing strikes and staying in command of the game," Sabathia said Sunday.
CC Sabathia as Yankees' MVP isn't mentioned much. But it should be.