- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- He looked like he never left, and that was a huge lift. But given the way the New York Yankees have soared over every big and little worry they've had this season, what did you expect?
CC Sabathia walked off the disabled list and onto the mound Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Yanks' ace was sharp from his first pitch. He hissed fastballs by the Blue Jays at 95 mph and sent his slider tilting nastily toward the plate. He was pulling the string on his changeup so deftly he made poor Colby Rasmus look silly as he flailed and reached for the ball. Sabathia struck him out twice in his first two at-bats.
"Tonight was probably the best [changeup] that I've had in probably a year," Sabathia said. "I felt great."
The thermometer said the game-time temperature at Yankee Stadium was 95 degrees. The calendar said Sabathia -- a perennial workhorse who traditionally is better with less rest -- hadn't pitched since June 24. But the Blue Jays couldn't have been surprised at how sharp and ruthlessly efficient Sabathia was as he and the Yankees steamrolled to a 6-1 win. And by now, everyone else who is trying to stop the Yankees from running away with the American League East probably isn't surprised, either.
With the Yanks now 22 games over .500 and threatening to tear off to a double-digit lead in the division, it's fair to wonder what it's going to take to stop this team.
Outside the East, the White Sox are losing steam. Texas is banged up. The Angels? They were just here. Maybe you missed it. The Yanks beat them two out of three.
Their troubles come and troubles go. None of their usual stars is having a career year. And yet their win total just keeps going up, up, up.
The Yankees aren't surprised by the happy surprises anymore. Not Sabathia's sharpness. "Nooooo, not really -- he's got what, a couple Cy Youngs, a lot of All-Star Games?" Nick Swisher said, laughing.
Then how about the production of the Yanks' bench? "We feel like we have specific players for specific roles. ... We know that we have all the pieces of the puzzle," Swisher said. "So it's bring what you can to the party. And if you can't bring one, bring two."
Swisher blinked, realizing his math didn't add up.
"Is that a Yogism? A Swisher-ism?" he said, laughing.
None of these good things was a sure thing when we last saw Sabathia pitch the week before the All-Star break. Remember how people were calling it Black Wednesday when he and Andy Pettitte went out with injuries on the same day? At the time, Pettitte might have been pitching even a little better than Sabathia was. When Joe Girardi held his postgame news conference after a line drive broke Pettitte's ankle -- and after the Yanks put Sabathia on the disabled list with a slightly pulled groin before the game -- the weary-looking manager pulled a hand down his face and acknowledged it seemed like a dark day.
People reasonably asked how the Yankees were going to survive without their No. 1 and 2 starters and Mariano Rivera, the best closer of all time.
So far, here's the answer: They actually widened their AL East lead from two games to nine in the time Sabathia was on the disabled list.
That's not supposed to happen, especially in a division in which all four other teams began Tuesday with .500 records or better, a distinction no other division can claim.
But the Yankees (56-34) have pulled it off because Rafael Soriano has been nearly perfect in Rivera's absence, the rest of their surprising bullpen has been a mix-and-match nightmare for opponents, and all that talk about how the Yanks were lousy at hitting with runners in scoring position or too reliant on home runs has been replaced by more goofy grins and "What can I say?" shrugs and guesswork about just how many home runs they might yet pile up.
The Blue Jays were bested these past two games by bombs from the Yanks' left-field platoon of Raul Ibanez (who hit a game-winning grand slam Monday) and Andruw Jones, who gave Sabathia a quick lead with a three-run shot to left in the second inning Tuesday, his 12th home run of the year. That just highlights more dispiriting news for teams chasing the Yanks: They've so far gotten 22 home runs and 75 RBIs from their No. 7 slot in the order. That's 35 more RBIs than A-Rod has given them.
Ibanez and Jones are playing this much only because the Yanks' expected starting left fielder, Brett Gardner (elbow injury), has played only nine games. But that's just another one of those unexpected things that add up to a magical season.
Toronto never really threatened to win this game. Sabathia has been particularly hard on the Blue Jays, having beaten them now the past nine times he's faced them dating back to 2007. Even if he'd needed a few games to shake off the rust, the starters behind him -- Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes -- have all clicked into a groove. Even Freddy Garcia, who came out of a long relief slot to take Pettitte's place, has been good enough.
But none of them are as proven or good as Sabathia, who improved his record to 10-3. He worked fast; he had command of everything in his repertoire. Sixty-six of the 87 pitches he threw were strikes.
He even followed Girardi's pregame plea to please, please, "please just get through it without getting hurt."
So what's not to like?
Sabathia shrugged and laughed.
"It's only July," he said.
Of course CC Sabathia looked great in his return from the DL. What did you expect?