Commentary

Hot bats and CC? A winning recipe

Binders or no, nine good hitters and a healthy helping of Sabathia hits the spot

Updated: September 27, 2012, 9:09 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The New York Yankees sent out a lineup no self-respecting Binder would have had anything to do with -- seven left-handed hitters, including five in a row stacked like hotcakes in the middle of the batting order -- and it went from unwieldy to absurd when the opposing starting pitcher, a righty, left the game after six batters with an itchy eyeball.

And yet, there are times when the secret to a victory isn't contained in any book, or formula or heat map or spray chart.

Sometimes all you need is nine good bats in a lineup and CC Sabathia on the mound.

That is what got the Yankees over Wednesday afternoon in their series finale against the Minnesota Twins, that and an underwhelming opponent forced to turn to its bullpen before the game had even really started.

Less than a half-day after the Yankees had given away a game they should have won due to pilot error, they won a game that not even the most meddlesome manager could manage to screw up.

Sabathia
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia got all the support he needed in Wednesday's drubbing of the Twins.

Their 8-2 victory over the fourth-place Twins required just two things -- a six-run third inning and eight strong innings of Sabathia.

Now, just so you don't get the wrong impression, it is not as if Joe Girardi shelved his precious looseleaf and allowed his gut to steer the ship for the day. Perish the thought.

In fact, the skipper admitted that when Samuel Deduno, the Twins starter, left the game with two out in the second with left eye irritation, he quickly leafed through his books and learned a couple of things that helped him breathe easier.

One is that Brian Duensing, the lefty reliever forced into emergency duty, had not thrown more than 40 pitches in any outing this season. So odds were he wouldn't be around too long.

The other was that many of his lefties, he said, had good numbers against Duensing, which meant he was safe to leave them in rather than pull the rug out of his lineup less than two innings into the game.

Still, Chris Dickerson, one of the lefties who got a rare start in the outfield, noticed that Andruw Jones, his right-handed hitting counterpart, pulled on a pair of batting gloves when Duensing came into the game.

"I thought [Girardi] was going to take me out," said Dickerson, who had yet to come to bat.

Luckily for everyone concerned, the manager left well enough alone, and was rewarded with a leftist uprising in a third inning in which four lefties faced Duensing, and all four got hits. Two of those, Robinson Cano's double and Curtis Granderson's triple, combined to knock in four of the six Yankee runs.

And Dickerson, who also singled in the inning, came back to smack a two-run homer off Anthony Swarzak, a righty, in the sixth to tack on the final two runs.

But the real story of the game was Sabathia, who after a run of worrisome lackluster outings has now strung together two straight performances in which he wasn't just good, but dominant.

Five days ago, the big fellow -- also, incidentally, a lefty -- threw eight innings of three-hit, no-run, 11-strikeout ball against the Oakland Athletics, and came away with a no-decision when Rafael Soriano blew the save in the ninth.

Wednesday afternoon, Sabathia was almost as good -- eight innings, six hits, two runs, 10 K's -- but the result was better because the Twins were so much worse.

It didn't seem to matter who the opponent was, however, because whatever had been ailing Sabathia through much of August and early September seems to have vanished as the season hurtles to its breathless conclusion.

Now, with just seven games left to be played, both the Yankees and their ace appear to be headed for the same destination: Game 1 of the ALDS on Oct. 6, against either the Chicago White Sox or the Detroit Tigers.

Pending the outcome of tonight's game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees now have a two-game lead in the AL East, their widest margin since Sept. 2.

More importantly, they have a two-game edge in the loss column, meaning that even if they go 4-3 over their last seven games -- against the lowly Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox, who are fighting one another for last place in the division -- the Orioles will need to go 6-1 just to earn a tie.

And with Sabathia slated to make one more start, at home on Monday against the Red Sox, his next scheduled start would come a week from Saturday, the day the ALDS opens in the home city of the third-seeded team.

See how nicely this is all fitting together? And all without a lot of managerial mixing-and-matching, handwringing, or other related dramatics.

In truth, Girardi's hand was forced this morning by the left foot of Alex Rodriguez, which stubbornly refused to recover after taking a foul ball off the top of it in A-Rod's final at-bat Tuesday night.

That cost Girardi a key right-handed bat from the middle of his lineup and prompted him to flip-flop Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter at the top of his lineup, to avoid the dreaded stacked lefties.

Still, he had no choice in the three-through-seven slots, a solid wall of lefties -- Cano, Nick Swisher, Granderson, Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez -- broken up by the switch-hitting Swisher but not really, since he, too, would bat lefty against Deduno.

Once Deduno went out and Duensing came in, the Binder would have told you to scrap the whole thing and start over.

Luckily, Girardi had neither the capability nor the inclination to do any such thing, not with Sabathia on the mound.

The six-run cushion the Yankees provided him in the third stamped this one as a done deal barely an hour after it had begun, and the 118 pitches he delivered -- an incredible 89 of which were strikes -- eased any remaining fears of just which Sabathia the Yankees were likely to see for the remainder of this season.

"I've never been a guy that didn't believe in CC," Girardi said. "He just wasn't able to get on that roll that we've seen, he had a couple DL stints that interrupted his season. He had some good months before he went on the DL the first time and we saw some good starts after he came off the DL the first time, but it's nice to see him put a couple back-to-back."

Sabathia, for his part, downplayed any concern about his recent performances -- his worst was probably the five runs, including three home runs, he allowed in 6 1/3 innings against Baltimore in what was thought to be a crucial game back on Sept. 8 -- and shot down the theory that his two stints on the DL would leave him more rested for the postseason than he has been in the past two seasons.

"I feel the same," he said. "Everybody said it was a great thing for me to have time off, it got me rested, but then I went out there and didn't pitch well and I wasn't as sharp. So it's a good and bad thing, having time off. Yeah, I don't have as many innings, but I can't really tell you that I feel any different than I have the past couple of years."

Still -- and you can find this in The Binder -- this is likely to be the first season since 2006 in which Sabathia has thrown less than 200 innings. After five straight seasons of 230-plus innings, Sabathia has only 192 in the bank with one start left.

"It just feels good to have two strong outings in a row," he said. "And it feels good to be able to go out with a lead and be able to shut them down. I was able to do that tonight and hopefully I can take what I can out of this one and be ready to do it again five days from now."

•••

The Yankees gave Twins fans one moment of pleasure when Chavez, mistakenly thinking there were two out in the seventh, took a potential double play ball, made the force out at third and then jogged off the field, believing the inning was over. When he realized his mistake, Chavez comically grimaced in embarrassment, an image that was beamed to the crowd over the giant video screen. "Well, I'm glad I could entertain them," he said. ... Brett Gardner got into his first game since April 17 when Girardi used him as a defensive replacement in left field for the bottom of the ninth. He did not get to field a ball, however. ... Derek Jeter took an 0-for-4, ending his 19-game hitting streak, although he did draw a walk and scored in the six-run third inning. ... Cano had two hits today and after going through a 3-for-25 slump, now has five hits in his last eight at-bats. ... Rodriguez said his foot was still sore after a day of treatment but said he was "hopeful" of playing in Toronto Thursday night.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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