Commentary

Could Sabathia be running out of gas?

The Yankees' ace has been mediocre since early August and may have been misused

Updated: September 17, 2011, 12:49 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- Over his past eight starts, CC Sabathia has won three games, lost three and had two no-decisions.

Over that span, beginning with a loss to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Aug. 6, his won-lost record has gone from 16-5 to 19-8. His ERA has risen from 2.55 to 3.01, where it sits after Friday night's 5-4 Yankees loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, a game in which Sabathia did not take the loss but lost a lead he generally would hold on to.

He has averaged 110.5 pitches per game and in four of those eight starts has allowed 10 hits.

The differences between CC Sabathia pre-Aug. 6 and post-Aug. 6 have not been radical, but they certainly have been noticeable.

Up to that point in the season, Sabathia was a great pitcher, an exceptional pitcher. Since then, he has been better than average, but just barely.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Abelimages/Getty ImagesSabathia is still stuck on 19 wins after a no-decision in Toronto on Friday night.

Why single out Aug. 6? Because beginning with that start, Sabathia has been mostly pitching outside his preferred routine, going on five days' rest rather than the customary four, thanks to the reluctance of manager Joe Girardi to trim the Yankees' six-man starting rotation to a more manageable five.

In the long run, Girardi's Grand Plan, if that is truly what it is, might work out to the team's benefit; avoiding what seemed to be the obvious choice a month ago -- the removal of the erratic and unreliable A.J. Burnett from the rotation -- might pay dividends in the form of a more confident and effective Burnett in the playoffs.

Then again, it might all blow up in Girardi's and the Yankees' faces.

Although Sabathia went to great lengths to deny that the disruption of his routine has been in any way responsible for the decline in his performance over the past six weeks, wouldn't it be ironic if it turned out that in trying to salvage Burnett, the Yankees had in fact sacrificed Sabathia?

Or it might be that none of it has anything to do with what's been going on with the Yankees' ace lately and that his second-half miniswoon is more the result of five straight years of a heavy workload.

But the reality is this: Girardi thinks enough of the theory that five days of rest is one too many for Sabathia that he is vowing to pitch him on "regular rest'' for his next start, and maybe the one after that, too.

It sounds like a good idea, with one major catch -- Sabathia has just two regular-season starts left before the playoffs begin, and if he makes both of them on his customary four days' rest, he will not be ready to go again until Game 2 of the American League Division Series.

So what to do?

The options, as it appears to me, are A, B or C.

Option A: Girardi can pitch Sabathia on a customary every-five-days schedule the rest of the way -- in one of the doubleheader games against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium and again Monday as the Yankees kick off their final series of the season in Tampa Bay.

That would mean either Sabathia would kick off the ALDS on Sept. 30 on short rest or the Yankees would have to hold back their ace until Game 2 on Oct. 1.

That hardly seems like a sensible solution.

Option B: Girardi can pitch Sabathia on Wednesday and then not pitch him again the rest of the regular season, meaning he would open the ALDS on a whopping nine days of rest. As the manager likes to say, "Not ideal.''

Or Option C: You pitch Sabathia on Wednesday and then use him again in another game, maybe Monday, for an inning or two, to keep him sharp -- sort of a side session within a game. This is an option that can be used only if the Yankees' position at the top of the AL East is secure, a situation Friday night's loss did nothing to help, since the Red Sox beat the Rays to once again pull within 3 1/2 games of the division leaders.

Asked about whether he would alter Sabathia's remaining schedule to line him up for playoff duty, Girardi chose to take refuge in this: "Well, we have to get into the playoffs before I can adjust anyone's schedule. I'm not making assumptions because we all know what happens when you make assumptions.''

But assuming, rather safely, that it will be nearly impossible for the Yankees to play themselves out of October with a 3 1/2-game lead and just 13 left to play, some hard decisions are going to have to be made.

And the truth is, there is no perfect solution to the corner the Yankees have painted themselves into for the last two weeks of the season.

Girardi and GM Brian Cashman had plenty of opportunities to pull the trigger on one of the surplus pitchers in their starting rotation, if only to preserve what they and every pitching coach at every level of the game loves to profess is so vitally important to a pitcher's success: the maintaining of a regular routine.

Sabathia worked on four days' rest in 16 of his first 22 starts. The results were a 14-5 record and a 2.62 ERA. Since then, the numbers are 5-3 and 3.89. More alarmingly, he has allowed 81 hits in 69 1/3 innings, an average of 10.5 hits per nine innings pitched. When the Yankees first announced they were going to a six-man rotation, Sabathia admitted he preferred to remain on his regular schedule.

On Friday night, confronted with the results since being forced to work on an extra day of rest, Sabathia seemed loathe to be perceived as using the change in his routine as an excuse.

"I don't think so,'' he said. "It's totally my fault today that I couldn't go deep into the game. It's my job as a SP to go deep into the games and give these guys a rest, and I haven't been able to do that. My stuff has been there. That's what's so frustrating.''

In fact, the stuff really hasn't been there. Although the radar gun says his velocity remains roughly the same -- he threw two pitches at 95 mph to Jose Bautista, his last batter of the game -- the quality and results of the swings taken against him lately tell a different story.

Adam Lind, a left-handed hitter who came in batting .200 against Sabathia, had two hits, including a bases-clearing triple in the fifth that wiped out a 3-1 Yankees lead. And after allowing Bautista a first-inning single, Sabathia pitched ultra-carefully to him the rest of the way, walking him three straight times.

Coming into the game, Bautista had been 0-for-18 lifetime versus Sabathia, with eight strikeouts. Still, the Yankees' ace willingly gave in to the Jays' slugger.

"He's one of the better hitters in the league,'' Sabathia said. "You never want to let that guy beat you.''

Earlier in the season, such a possibility might not have entered his mind. On Friday night, it affected his whole game.

Other things might be in play as well. Sabathia now has thrown 230 innings this year, seven shy of his total last season. He has thrown 230 innings or more in each of the past five seasons.

And the 120 pitches he threw Friday night ran his season's total to 3,477 -- just 90 fewer than he threw all last season. It could be a simple matter of late-season wear and tear on an arm now 31 years and 2,600 innings old.

Then, of course, there was that curious game back on July 26, when Girardi sent Sabathia back out after not one, but two rain delays. He wound up throwing seven-plus innings of one-run ball, but multiple stops and starts is not generally the recommended way to treat the ace of your staff.

"Yeah, that is a concern,'' Girardi said of Sabathia's workload this season. "You worry about it. But he's our ace, and I believe in him. I still believe CC's going to run off some good starts for us, I really do.''

There really aren't enough games left for Sabathia to have another regular-season run in him, and now the Yankees have to hope he doesn't run down just as October starts up.

• • •

Eric Chavez, pressed into service when it was determined that Alex Rodriguez needed at least one more day before his sprained left thumb was ready to return to the lineup, responded with a two-run homer in the fourth that gave the Yankees a 3-1 lead. It was Chavez's first homer since Aug. 3 and his second of the season. ... Nick Swisher drove in two runs with a fourth-inning double and a sixth-inning single. ... Rafael Soriano struck out the side in the seventh, and David Robertson did his typical Houdini act, loading the bases in the eighth on a hit and two walks, and then getting out of it when Edwin Encarnacion lined out hard to center. ... Bartolo Colon (8-9, 3.55 ERA) faces RHP Henderson Alvarez (1-2, 3.09) on Saturday, first pitch at 1:07 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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