- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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CLEVELAND -- It was a game the Yankees would have had no business losing, not with their ace on the mound and a rookie with a six-plus ERA pitching for the Cleveland Indians, who were 16 games under .500 and rapidly heading for the cellar in the AL Central.
And yet, for six innings it looked like maybe they really had forgotten how to win, and now, even with a two-run lead and their utterly reliable fill-in closer on the mound, nothing was in the bag and plenty still hung in the balance.
It had already been a scary night -- in the second inning, Derek Jeter got beaned by a 92 mph fastball from rookie Corey Kluber, a pitch that shattered the bill of his cap but luckily appeared to do him no damage -- and now in the ninth inning, the frights were of another sort.
The Indians had two runners on and the tying run at second, just a base hit away. On the scoreboard, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Yankees' dogged pursuers, were trying to pull out one more come-from-behind victory over the Oakland Athletics.
A bad break here and a bad break there and this night could easily have ended with the Yankees clinging to a razor-thin 1 1/2 game lead in the AL East after having been 10 games up little more than a month ago.
Instead, it ended exactly as the Yankees could have hoped. Rafael Soriano won a seven-pitch duel with Jack Hannahan, ultimately getting the pinch hitter to ground out to first, stranding both runners.
Moments later in St. Petersburg, the Rays' Matt Joyce grounded out in Tampa's final chance, stranding his team's tying run at second.
And for one night at least, Planet Yankee was spinning correctly on its axis once again.
Even if their lead was still rather skimpy, just 3 1/2 games, their confidence was as high as it has been all week, for one very important reason: CC Sabathia was back, and back in business.
"We got our boy back," said a jubilant Nick Swisher, who drove in all three of the Yankees' runs in their 3-1 win over the Indians at Progressive Field on Friday night, two of them with a seventh-inning home run that turned out to be the game winner. "We got our horse back."
While it may not have been the most fortunate choice of words, the intent of what Swisher said was easily understood.
Even with a healthy Sabathia, this season had been turning into a struggle for the Yankees. Without him, it might well have become a disaster.
But for now, it seems as if all is well with the Yankees' $191 million man. After a 15-day stint on the disabled list that felt more like 15 years, Sabathia returned to throw one of his best games of the year, a 7 1/3 inning, four-hit, nine-strikeout gem marred only by Asdrubal Cabrera's solo home run in the fourth inning.
Most encouraging of all, Sabathia reported no pain in his left elbow, the injury that had shut him down since Aug. 9 and and left lingering doubt in the minds of more than one Yankee about the club's ability to overcome another devastating injury.
Those fears are eased somewhat tonight, although as the ever-cautious Joe Girardi pointed out, the next couple of days will tell if Sabathia's elbow soreness was just a two-week aberration or an unwelcome guest that will be popping in time and again.
"When you look at it, and see how he threw tonight, you kinda take a sigh of relief," Girardi said. "The hope is nothing comes back."
It was important for Sabathia to throw the kind of game he did for several reasons.
In the immediate view, he needed to stop the three-game losing streak the team was on after being swept in Chicago earlier this week, and he needed to slow the relentless march of the Rays, who had made up 3 1/2 games in the standings over the past week alone.
For the long term, he needed to provide his team with some sense that for the stretch run they will have more than just Hiroki Kuroda in their rotation as a starting pitcher to be depended upon.
And in the game itself, they really needed Sabathia because, despite facing one of the most hittable pitchers in baseball through the first four starts of his big-league career -- lefties were hitting .391 against Kluber, and the Yankees' lineup featured seven left-handed hitters -- they were unable to put more than one run on the board even though they loaded the bases in each of the first two innings and stranded runners on second and third in the fifth.
After Sabathia threw a pitch that sailed behind Cabrera's butt -- he insisted the ball cut on him too much, although it sure looked like retaliation for Jeter -- the Indians' shortstop hit the very next pitch over the center-field fence and the Yankees were locked into a tie game.
But thereafter followed two of Sabathia's best escapes of the year. In the fifth, he loaded the bases on two singles and a hit batter, this one entirely unintentional, and escaped without damage when he got Jason Kipnis to ground out.
"It was huge," Sabathia said of his slider. "They have a few lefties in there, and any time I can have that pitch working with velocity it really helps."
"I was pleasantly surprised with how good his command was tonight," Girardi said. "You don't throw for 15 days, you don't expect that."
Pleasantly surprised? The Yankees have got to be ecstatic with what they got out of Sabathia, after having been apoplectic about where they might have been without him.
"It feels really good," Sabathia said of the elbow that could make or break the Yankees' season. "I really cut it loose in the bullpen before the game to see how it was going to react and it felt really good. We'll see the next couple of days and go from there."
Once again, the Yankees are only going as far as CC Sabathia can take them.
For one night at least, all was right with the Yankees, thanks to CC Sabathia.