- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
So when the Yankees ace pumped his big left fist and let out a roar as the Tigers' Austin Jackson swung through a 3-2 changeup to end the seventh inning on Sunday, it told you all you needed to know about what this game meant to Sabathia and his teammates.
You can believe all you want to about it being too early in the season to panic, or about there being no must-win games in April.
That fist pump and roar reminded you that you can learn a lot more about people, and teams, by observing what they do rather than listening to what they say.
The Yankees needed to win this game, badly, and heading into it there didn't seem very much likelihood that they would.
The Tigers had beaten the Bombers six straight, including all four games of last year's ALCS. Their lineup is among the most powerful in baseball. And Justin Verlander, probably the best all-around starting pitcher in the game, had the baseball.
So when Sabathia confounded Jackson with the 84-mph pitch and strode off the mound knowing he would safely deliver a ballgame into the hands of the two most reliable arms in the Yankees' bullpen, a little celebration was certainly in order.
"I think CC really has a lot of pride in what he does and understands the ace role and that we needed to win a game today," Joe Girardi said. "I think he probably took a lot of satisfaction out of it and the team picked up on it."
It sure looked like it, because when Sabathia left the mound, having stifled the Tigers on four singles, the Yankees held a 3-0 lead. By the time David Robertson took the mound a half-inning later, the lead had swelled to 5-0. And by the time Girardi sent Rivera out just to get some work in the ninth inning, the Yankees were up 7-0.
Verlander had been vanquished and the Tigers had been beaten. A sweep had been averted, as well as the worst start to a Yankees season in 24 years.
Now, they can head to Cleveland for Monday afternoon's game against the Indians as a 2-4 club rather than 1-5, and if the difference is merely incremental in the standings, it is huge in the clubhouse.
Leave it to Mo to give the plain, unvarnished truth: "We needed to win today."
The Yankees certainly did, if only to prove to themselves they are not as bad as they looked over four of the first five games of their new season.
Losing two of three to the Boston Red Sox at home was bad enough; getting smoked in the first two games in Detroit left them on the precipice of early season disaster. Another subpar outing by Sabathia -- who allowed four runs in five lackluster innings on Opening Day -- even with Verlander going for the Tigers -- might have been the kind of dispiriting loss that could set a ballclub back for weeks.
But on a day in which the Tigers ace came up shockingly human -- Verlander gave up an RBI double to Francisco Cervelli and a two-run home run to Jayson Nix, the Nos. 7 and 9 hitters in the diluted Yankees batting order, in the third inning -- Sabathia came up as huge as his 6-foot-7, 290-pound body.
Velocity on his fastball might still be a tick low -- he hit 92 mph a couple of times but mostly lingered in the 89-91 mph range -- but his effectiveness was high, especially with the kind of changeup he used to end his day against Jackson.
But even more impressive than that was the way Sabathia declawed the ferocious middle of the Tigers' batting order, holding Miguel Cabrera (4-for-4) in Saturday's 8-4 Tigers win, Prince Fielder (two monstrous home runs in Friday's 8-3 Tigers win) and Victor Martinez (just plain dangerous) hitless in nine at-bats, striking out Fielder twice.
Incredibly, the Tigers got two men on base just once against Sabathia, in the fourth inning, and never got a runner to third base.
"That's an unbelievable lineup," Sabathia said. "I pitched in a lot more effectively today and it helped my changeup."
Sabathia's final pitch count was a tad high -- 114 -- owing to three walks and more than few deep counts, and as he pointed out, "We definitely worked harder than the final number indicates."
Still, the overall impression was that of a game controlled by the Yankees pretty much from the start, and even before, when Rivera was honored by the Tigers in a pre-game ceremony at home plate.
With Verlander going, it was easy to assume that would have been the last we saw of Mo all day. But until the Yankees tacked on four runs in the final two innings, one on an RBI single by Cervelli in the eighth and two more off a Kevin Youkilis single in the ninth, there was always the feeling that the Tigers could wipe out that three-run lead with one decent inning.
That inning never came. After Sabathia handed the game over, Robertson pitched around two singles in a scoreless eighth, and Rivera, after allowing two bloop singles and needing a spectacular catch in deep center by Brett Gardner, struck out Torii Hunter to end the game.
"The only must-win games are when you can be eliminated," Girardi said, parroting the universal baseball party line. "But it feels good to win a game and hopefully we can carry it over into tomorrow."
You can believe that if you want to.
Or you can trust your own eyes, which saw Sabathia roar like a tiger on the mound at Comerica Park after recording just one more strikeout in a career that has already notched more than 2,000 of them.
That told you everything you needed to know about how important that pitch was to Sabathia, and this win was to the Yankees.