- Andrew Marchand, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- When Russell Martin connected with what his manager would later describe as the biggest hit of the season, CC Sabathia lounged on the black leather couch in the middle of the Yankees' humongous home clubhouse.
The moment Martin's bat connected with the ball in the bottom of the 10th inning against the Oakland A's, Sabathia, watching on one of the flat screens that hangs near the ceiling, didn't need to wait for Michael Kay to say, "See ya!" He knew.
"That's a homer," Sabathia said.
It was indeed, giving the Yankees' the 10-inning, 2-1 victory over the A's. It transformed what would have been a really tough loss into the team's sixth straight win and allowed the Yankees to stay a game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles, who took care of their business in Boston.
But Martin's homer meant more than just one victory. It allowed for all the good feelings that emanated from Sabathia's left arm all night to be felt by the time Martin was tossing his helmet into the sky as he was mobbed by his teammates at home plate.
Martin allowed for Sabathia's start to be the main storyline Friday night and not Joe Girardi's decision to not let Sabathia finish the game. Sabathia gave Girardi maybe his best eight innings of the year.
Sabathia said he was ready to give the full nine even after 113 pitches, but Girardi turned to closer Rafael Soriano to finish up. Soriano failed for just the fourth time in 46 save chances, allowing pinch hitter Brandon Moss to nail a ninth-inning solo shot. But Martin just made that a detail.
From behind the plate, Martin knew that Friday was about Sabathia's fastball. After blowing leads in four straight starts and losing three in a row for the first time as a Yankee, Sabathia's lack of velocity had been his downfall.
On Friday, Sabathia just reared back and fired 95 mph heat by any doubters.
"I think it was important for him," Girardi said. "It's important for us. I talked about it, if you're going to get on a roll, now's the right time."
For the first five innings Sabathia held the A's hitless. Overall, he went eight, striking out 11, giving up just three hits and walking two. Most importantly, in the seventh, he was dealing 94 and 95 mph fastballs to strike out the heart of the A's order, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes. Sabathia's success is predicated on the life of his fastball which, when lively, allows him to throw his slider and change off of it.
"I know it's been a season where it hasn't been vintage CC," Girardi said. "Here's a guy with an ERA under 3.50 and we're not calling him vintage CC. That's how good he is. Tonight might have been maybe the best game he pitched all year."
It was a beautiful, cool night at the Stadium, but there wasn't really any extra electricity in the building despite the pennant race and a potential playoff opponent in town. It was rather quiet. Maybe that was because there weren't many runs, but the crowd didn't seem to sense Sabathia's dominance.
Finally, in the eighth, Sabathia almost cracked. The A's loaded the bases thanks in part because Eduardo Nunez did not charge a ball aggressively enough. So with two singles and a hit batter, Sabathia faced Reddick with the bags juiced, protecting the one-run lead.
Reddick had struck out the three previous times he faced Sabathia. Sabathia fired a 94 mph fastball and Reddick finally connected. He got some OK wood on it, lining it the opposite way. But, as he has been all week, Ichiro Suzuki was in the right place at the right time and made the catch. The fans acknowledged Sabathia's efforts with a nice ovation.
Sabathia looked like a different pitcher than the one he was the last month. He was in control of the game, with his velocity up from 92 to 95 and improving throughout the night.
"I was trying not to overthrow," Sabathia said.
He didn't. Then in the 10th, off Sean Doolittle, Martin connected for his second game-winning home run of the season. He had one back in June against the Mets, but this one was bigger with just 13 games remaining and the Yankees desperately trying to avoid the wild card.
"With 13 games to go, we're fighting to win the division," Girardi said, agreeing when a reporter asked if it was the biggest knock of the year. "That's just a huge hit."
It was a huge night for the Yankees, and it was mainly because they got their ace back.
CC Sabathia pitched maybe his best game of the season in Friday's win.