- Andrew Marchand, ESPN Senior Writer
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Sabathia did not want to let this one slip away, not against the Tampa Bay Rays, who the New York Yankees are already chasing in the all important division race. So with two men on and two out in the seventh, he wanted B.J. Upton in the worst way.
After a ball, Sabathia threw three straight strikes. The last of which, a nasty 83-mph slider in the dirt, left Upton flailing.
Upton took his bat, like a sledgehammer, and tried to plant in the dirt in frustration.
Sabathia roared and pump his left fist as if it were an October K, not one in May.
The Yankees wanted this one bad. The Rays are the new Red Sox for the Yankees. There may not be the history of Babe, Bucky and Boone or even the crowds, judging by the empty seats, but these are the most important games of the season and the Yankees know it.
After being whipped in seven straight by the Rays, dating back to last year, the Yankees split the first two games thanks to new closer David Robertson, so it was up to Sabathia to make the series a success.
Sabathia threw eight innings of two-run, (both unearned because of Eduardo Nunez), seven-hit baseball. His 10 strikeouts were a season high.
"It was the best game he has pitched all year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the 5-3 win gave his club the rubber game against their recent nemesis. "I thought he was brilliant. He shouldn't have given up a run. Ground ball after ground ball after ground ball."
In the three games against the Rays, Sabathia, Ivan Nova, David Phelps and the bullpen had a 0.92 ERA. A far different story than the 6.02 ERA they slunk out of Tampa with after the opening three games of the season.
"This series was important for us because of the way we lost some games down there," Girardi said.
With the extra wild card placing greater importance on the division, these games have more meaning than in recent years. Winning the division could mean having Sabathia starting Game 1 of the ALDS instead of having a rotation all off-balance because of the play-in wild card game.
With that, wherever the Yankees end up this season, it is hard to imagine, if it is any place good, Sabathia won't be the one leading them there.
Sabathia is now 5-0, which matches 2007 when he won the AL Cy Young with Cleveland. His ERA has shrunk to 3.51. And he made it so Girardi only had to use Rafael Soriano to close, as Robertson got the night off after his high pitch counts in back-to-back stressful outings.
Even with the series win, it is clear that if the Yankees are going to beat this confident, young Rays club for the division, the Alex Rodriguezes and Mark Teixeiras of the world are going to have to play a little more like the back of their baseball cards.
Teixeira is now hitting .212. A-Rod has his average up to .287, but his power numbers are almost a night's work for Josh Hamilton.
Girardi has to strongly consider moving Curtis Granderson to a 3-4-5 spot because, while Granderson may not have the flair of his higher-paid teammates, he is the scariest hitter on the team. He smashed his 11th homer of the year, which is only one less than Rodriguez, Teixeira and Robinson Cano have combined.
Cano, though, is suddenly coming around -- 8-for-his-last-15 -- boosting his average all the way to .286 and nailing a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth of the talented Tampa lefty, David Price.
Meanwhile, Sabathia owed Price one. Before Thursday night, they had met six times and the Rays won each one. Price was 3-0 with a 1.56 ERA, while Sabathia was 0-3 with a 5.91 ERA.
Sabathia gave up a pair of unearned runs, because Eduardo Nunez makes Amare Stoudemire look like a steady defender. In the first, Nunez couldn't field an easy dribbler. Nick Swisher helped Sabathia with a cannon throw to end the inning and erase Jeff Keppinger at the plate.
In the second, Nunez failed to make a routine throw to second on potential double-play ball. The two errors cost the Yankees two runs, but only two because of Sabathia. By the sixth, Girardi had seen enough and yanked Nunez for defense.
The Yankees (17-14) won two of three, but at this point in the season, the Rays look like the superior team and not only because of their record. Now, after all these years of being AL East contenders, Tampa (20-12) doesn't look the least bit intimidated by being in the Bronx.
Tampa has still won eight of the last 10 meetings between the two teams. Yes, the payroll discrepancy is immense.
The Rays' players will earn around $64 million this season, while the Yankees will take in about three times as much. Still, as Girardi pointed out, the talent gap is not that great.
The Rays may not be able to shop with the Yankees on Madison Avenue, but they can hang with them on River Avenue. They know it, too. Their manager, Joe Maddon, said teams can be intimidated coming into the Bronx and seeing all the brand names in the dugout.
But the Rays have been able to become better more quickly because of how often they face that "playoff atmosphere" in the AL East.
"If you are in that moment often enough that impetus goes away," Maddon said. "We are in this arena often enough, I don't think we feel what some other teams feel maybe when they come in here."
No, they don't feel it. It almost looks like the opposite that they relish the atmosphere. The Rays are going to be tough all year. They have the starting pitching to compete with the Yankees and a knack for finding just enough of everything else.
That is why Sabathia so desperately wanted to finish this one off. He did, but if the Yankees are going to beat the Rays for the division Sabathia won't be able to do it alone.
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