- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When last we left the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays, on Sept. 28, 2011, they had just played a nearly five-hour game that was more like an old-school 15-round heavyweight title fight.
That momentous night changed the course of the AL East -- the Yankees lost their fourth straight game but held on to the division championship, the Rays snuck in as the wild card, the Red Sox fell out, and not only lost a playoff spot, but their right to eat chicken wings and drink beer in the clubhouse.
Friday afternoon at Tropicana Field, the bell rings again when the Yankees and Rays kick off their 2012 season, and reignite what promises to be another ferocious battle for control of the AL East.
And who better for the Yankees to have on the mound than their ace, CC Sabathia, who is certainly in the conversation for the most successful free-agent pitcher this franchise has ever signed, or at least this incarnation of the franchise.
In his three seasons as a Yankee, Sabathia has won 59 games, posted a 3.18 ERA, been in the top four in the Cy Young Award voting every year, and was named the 2009 ALCS MVP. He has been everything the Yankees could have hoped for and everything they have needed him to be.
And Friday, they ask him to be that guy again, the guy who gets them off to a running start against the team most likely to give them a run for the division title.
"You're looking at a consistent winner year in and year out, a guy that takes the ball and gives you a great chance to win every time he goes out there," Joe Girardi said of his ace, who will face right-hander James Shields in the opener (first pitch, 3:10 p.m.) "Even on days where maybe he doesn't have his A stuff, he finds a way to keep it always close. That's what makes him so great to me."
In a Yankees season that figures to be in flux much of the way, Sabathia remains a constant, an every-five-days helping of comfort food that his team not only looks forward to, but has come to rely upon.
This could be a very uncommon Yankees season, what with the expected re-arrival of Andy Pettitte in the rotation a month from now, the return at some point of Michael Pineda, and the strong likelihood that we will be witnesses to the final act of one of the greatest careers in Yankees history, that of Mariano Rivera.
CC is being counted to bring the calm.
You might think that carrying that burden, the onus of being the one guy in the Yankees' starting rotation who is not allowed to have a bad day, or at least not too many of them, would exert the kind of pressure that could bring even a man as large as Sabathia to his knees.
"I think that's what every pitcher wants, to be able to be that guy every time out that the team has confidence you have a good chance to win," Sabathia said at Thursday's off-day workout. "I put a lot of pressure on myself anyway, so any outside pressure has no effect on how I go out and play. I expect myself to pitch well every time out and give the team a chance to win. The pressure of being an ace doesn't compare at all to what I put on myself."
This season, even Sabathia comes in with a question or two hanging over his head. Despite his overall excellence last year -- 19-8, 3.00 ERA -- there is no doubt that there was a significant drop-off in Sabathia's second-half performance, especially after Girardi went to a six-man rotation to accommodate the return of Phil Hughes, a change in his routine that Sabathia was openly not fond of.
And Sabathia's struggles seemed to continue into this spring, in which he went 0-1 with a 5.00 ERA, and his last appearance was probably his worst, in which he allowed three runs in four innings, including a long home run by Gaby Sanchez in the opening of Marlins Park, already known for being pitcher-friendly. Sabathia had trouble locating his fastball that day, and actually wound up throwing more balls than strikes (35-34), a most unusual ratio for him.
The Yankees say CC's spring isn't a concern, and CC says the same.
"The start before that it was pretty good," Sabathia said. "It was one of those things the other day where I couldn't get it going."
Sabathia was battling a head cold that night, which he said was ''no excuse for why I didn't pitch good," and said he made some adjustments in a bullpen session that he believes will tame his unruly fastball Friday at The Trop.
"I throw everything off my fastball -- my changeup, my cutter, everything. I need to have that to be able to pitch well," Sabathia said. "It was pretty good in my bullpen so I was excited about that."
Sabathia said that even heading into his 12th big league season, Opening Day never gets old. It also never gets easy.
"I still get butterflies before pretty much every game but especially Opening Day," he said. "It's a brand-new season and you want to start the season off right. It's an honor to be able to go out there and take the ball. A lot of butterflies but as soon as you get out there it feels normal. I'll be excited all day [Friday] and all night [Thursday] and be ready to go at 3 o'clock."
Sabathia will be facing a well-balanced lineup with speed (Desmond Jennings) and power (Evan Longoria) and a starting pitcher whose nickname might just as well be Complete Game James, since he finished a major league-high 11 of his starts in 2011.
And he will be supported by a lineup that is familiar to just about anyone living in the Western Hemisphere, with one significant new addition: Raul Ibanez, the 39-year-old left-handed designated hitter who will replace Yankees legend Jorge Posada. Ibanez had a poor spring in terms of batting average (.150), but since he was brought here to hit home runs and collect RBIs, his team-leading three HRs and healthy 10 RBIs might be an indication that he will be an important contributor.
There are other question marks as well, starting with A-Rod, who struggled through an injury-shortened 2011, playing in just 99 games and posting career lows in home runs (16) and RBIs (62).
Then there is Jeter, who struggled even more mightily through the first half of 2011 than he had in 2010, but turned it around with a vengeance after returning from a calf injury that landed him on the DL in June. Jeter had an excellent spring -- he hit .318 -- but he will turn 38 in June and his ability to stay fresh and healthy throughout the season will be critical to the Yankees' success.
Robinson Cano, the new No. 3 hitter, is as much an automatic at the plate and in the field as Sabathia is on the mound, but Curtis Granderson has a monumental task trying to duplicate his career season in 2011, when he hit 41 home runs and led the league in RBIs (119) and runs (136).
Mark Teixeira was stifled by the shift as a left-handed hitter but worked on hitting the ball the other way all spring, although we never did see him lay down a bunt, as he threatened.
Nick Swisher, who wilted in October once again, will be playing for a new contract, and Brett Gardner, whose offensive game is predicated on getting on base, didn't do a good enough job of it last season.
Russell Martin, an excellent backstop, doesn't even come close to providing the kind of offensive advantage Posada did in the Yankees' lineup.
And with Jeter, A-Rod and Teixeira needing periodic DH days to maintain their freshness, the Yankees will be looking to Eduardo Nunez to fulfill his promise.
There are questions in the bullpen, too, especially with Joba Chamberlain likely gone for the season after suffering a dislocated ankle while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
David Robertson was probably the most effective pitcher on the staff last year. Can he do it again? Last year, Rafael Soriano had trouble adjusting to his new role as the seventh-inning guy; will he do better this year? Boone Logan is hardly 100 percent reliable as the "lefty specialist," and now, he isn't 100 percent healthy, either. With new additions David Phelps and Clay Rapada relatively inexperienced, Cory Wade is going to be a very important part of this bullpen.
And of course, there is Mo, who continues to do a job that history and his birth certificate insist he should not be able to do.
The rotation, of course, will be changeable and, no doubt, changing all season if Hughes doesn't return to his 2010 form or if Ivan Nova doesn't improve from his spring 2012 form. Pineda has the weight of the world on his young shoulders and a fastball from which several mph seem MIA.
And while it's a great story, who really knows if Pettitte can make it all the way back?
On paper, this is a very good Yankees team, every bit as good as the one that won 97 games last year, and probably a little deeper, in the rotation and on the bench.
But the competition has gotten better, too; the Rays have a great young pitching staff and, with the addition of Carlos Pena, have gotten more dangerous at the plate, too. The Red Sox add discipline and turmoil with Bobby Valentine. Sorry, Albert, but the Blue Jays still have the most dangerous hitter in the league in Jose Bautista.
And the Yankees still have CC, free of the contract worries of last season -- he will be a Yankee for at least five more seasons -- and confident in the knowledge that every time he takes the baseball, their chances of winning go way up.
"It's always a great comfort to have CC on the mound," Girardi said.
So here it is, finally, Round 1 with the Rays, and the Yankees' heavyweight is ready to go.