- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
- 0 Shares
The way CC Sabathia pitched Friday night, the Yankees could have set up a peach basket or a pitch-back behind home plate and the result probably would have been the same.
But the fact that Joe Girardi sent out Russell Martin, his starting catcher, to catch Sabathia, his ace, for the first time in nearly four months, settled one of the last remaining issues involving his team.
"Everybody made such a big deal of it that I guess we were wondering when I would throw to him," Sabathia said. "It felt good once we were out there."
"I wanted to make sure he had a good start today, because if he didn't then I know there would have been some stories about that," Martin said. "I'm glad we kind of put that behind us."
The "personal catcher" angle may have been a totally manufactured story. But if so, it was manufactured by the actions of Girardi.
It may well have been pure coincidence or happenstance, but when the best pitcher on the staff, the one that is signed for the next five years at a cost of $122 million, throws 16 consecutive starts to the backup catcher, that is unusual, to say the least.
Girardi has been saying for weeks now that, sooner or later, he needed to get Sabathia and Martin back into a game together, because come Game 1 of the playoffs, CC will be the starting pitcher and Martin the starting catcher.
But every five days, it seemed as if there was another reason to send Chris Stewart out there and to keep Russell Martin on the bench. If it wasn't a day game after a night game, it was four days in a row, or it was too hot, or too cold, or too something.
But whatever the real reason, there was no mistaking the pattern. When CC Sabathia pitched, Chris Stewart caught. And Russell Martin sat.
"He's been throwing the ball well with Stewie," Martin said. "And you kind of fall into that pattern of, when CC's throwing, I'm getting a day off. I think Joe was just going with the flow. Why change something that doesn't need to be fixed?"
Indeed, after allowing nine earned runs in his first two starts of the season with Martin behind the plate, Sabathia had gone 10-3 with a 3.24 ERA throwing to Stewart.
No doubt, he was having a very good, if unspectacular season. But never once this season had Sabathia thrown a game like the one he threw Friday night, in which he subdued an admittedly punchless Mariners lineup, setting down the first 10 batters with ease, allowing a solo home run, and then retiring the next 12 before allowing a one-out double in the eighth.
Sabathia faltered a bit in the ninth, walking the leadoff hitter and then surrendering a long two-run homer to Dustin Ackley to make the final score 6-3 and give the game the appearance of closeness.
But there was nothing close or competitive about this one. Sabathia struck out 10, all of them within the first six innings, walked just one hitter and even convinced the ever-cautious Girardi to allow him to finish up after Ackley's moon shot.
It may or may not have had anything to do with the change in catchers -- "All I did was put fingers down," Martin said -- but something was different about Sabathia in this one.
An excellent pitcher all season, on this night Sabathia was in every way an ace.
"CC's a winner," Girardi said. "I'm not going to worry about CC too much. I know who he is and I know what he's done, and I believe it's in there all the time. I thought he had a really good night tonight."
So did Girardi, who made three unconventional decisions that all paid off. His first was to stick Martin back behind the plate, which may have been an easier call than it looked for a couple of reasons. For one, the Yankees were off yesterday following a day game on Wednesday, ensuring the starting catcher would be fresh.
For another, there are no particularly dangerous bats in a Mariners lineup in which no regular was batting higher than .260 (Jesus Montero) and no one had more than 11 home runs (Kyle Seager). If ever there was a soft spot for the Sabathia/Martin tandem to land, it was in this game.
His second decision was bit more curious, the call to bat Curtis Granderson, the Yankees' leading home run hitter, in the leadoff spot and drop Derek Jeter, the Yankee with the second-highest on-base percentage (.360) to second.
That, too, paid off when Granderson came to bat in the third inning with runners on second and third and promptly delivered a two-run single.
And his final decision of the night, leaving Sabathia in to finish the game, may not have been the one he intended to make when he left the dugout following Ackley's home run.
Girardi is a manager who rarely visits the mound without coming back with a pitcher; he generally leaves the advice and pep talks to his pitching coach, Larry Rothschild.
And when he strode out to the mound in the ninth, even Sabathia thought his night had ended.
"When he first walked out there I did," Sabathia said. "But once he asked, 'How you feel?' I knew I was going to get the opportunity to get some guys out, and that felt pretty good."
"I just wanted to make sure he felt all right," Girardi said. "Sometimes the manager chooses to do that. He said was fine, and I said, 'Let's go.'"
Sabathia wound up using an economical 103 pitches, many of them a nasty two-seam fastball that broke down and in to lefties and down and away to righties, resulting in a lot of ugly swings.
And the mistake to Ackley turned out to be harmless, thanks to a patented Yankee Stadium home run by Eric Chavez in the sixth -- a fly ball that would have been a routine out anywhere else but dropped one row deep into the right-field seats and became the decisive two-run homer.
"When you hear bullpen guys saying, 'Thank you for the day off,' that feels pretty good," Sabathia said. "Hopefully I can keep doing that."
Martin, of course, was saying just the opposite. Not only had he not caught Sabathia in a game since April 11, he hadn't caught him in a side session, in a bullpen, or anywhere else except for an odd in-between innings warmup here and while Stewart was putting his gear on from a previous at-bat.
"I was maybe a little bit nervous before the game but as soon as the game started, everything settled down and it felt really natural," Martin said. "I guess today just proves that I can catch CC. I'm just glad he did well tonight."
It will be interesting to see, five days from now, who Joe Girardi pencils in as his catcher the next time Sabathia pitches.
It may be Martin, or it may be Stewart.
Or it may be a peach basket. If CC Sabathia throws the way he did Friday night, it really won't matter.
CC and Martin reunited. But it wouldn't have mattered who was catching Friday.