The Yankees' postseason hopes rest heavily on a healthy Sabathia. The way things are going lately, you might be able to say the same thing about their bid to avoid an all-time collapse in the American League East.
In his first start since Aug. 8, when he was forced to the DL by manager Joe Girardi and General Manager Brian Cashman, there did not appear to be any signs of a balky left elbow. Sabathia retired the first 10 batters and 13 of the first 14. He struck out nine and walked one. His fastball was in the mid-90s. His slider and changeup were sharp.
“We got our boy back. We got our horse,” said outfielder Nick Swisher, whose two-run homer in the seventh off reliever Cory Allen snapped a 1-1 tie.
It's exactly what the Yankees had to have. They were coming off absorbing a three-game sweep in Chicago and their lead in the AL East had plummeted from 10 games to just 2½ over hard-charging Tampa Bay. Injuries to the rotation continue to dog them, as Sabathia came off the DL just as Ivan Nova went on with shoulder stiffness. Sabathia has to be able to go every five days.
“I felt good all night,” said Sabathia (13-3). “The pitches had the action they were supposed to. The slider was huge. They had a lot of lefties in there. Anytime you get that pitch working with a little velocity, it really helps.”
“That's very impressive, like he never left really,” said catcher Russell Martin. “He looked really smooth in the bullpen, had command of all his pitches. When he does that, he usually brings it into the game.”
The only blemish was a solo home run to dead center Sabathia gave up to Asdrubal Cabrera with one out in the fourth. Oddly enough, it came one pitch after Sabathia served in his other role as team leader by throwing behind Cabrera in retaliation for an ear-flap shot on a 92-mph fastball Derek Jeter took in the second from Tribe starter Corey Kluber.
What happened on the behind-the-back pitch to Cabrera?
“It cut a lot,” said a straight-faced Sabathia.
How dominant was Sabathia? Cabrera's home run was the only ball the Indians even got out of the infield in the first four innings. He threw 100 pitches (63 strikes) and left to a big ovation from Yankees fans in the crowd of 27,986 after striking out Jason Kipnis to lead off the Cleveland eighth. Were there Cleveland fans cheering too? Probably not. They're still chafed about the 2008 trade to Milwaukee Sabathia forced when he didn't sign a longterm deal here.
Sabathia is no kid any more. He turned 32 on July 21 and is in his 12th big-league season. It's a long way from being the 20-year-old at Indians spring training in 2001 in Winter Haven, Fla., asking around about the best chicken wing joints in Buffalo (I recommended Gabriel's Gate in addition to the normal Anchor Bar/Duff's shoutouts, just for the record).
Of course, he never got there as Tribe manager Charlie Manuel won a tug-of-war with General Manager John Hart and got the big lefty to the big leagues straight from Double-A. Sabathia went 17-5 and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting for a division champion (behind new Yankees teammate Ichiro Suzuki).
Over the years, durability has been a Sabathia hallmark on the way to 189 wins. The 180 innings of his rookie year are his fewest in the big leagues and he's averaged 227 per year overall. He had oblique issues earlier this year but whenever you hear “sore elbow” and “unable to lift elbow over head” from a 30-something with more than 2,500 innings in the big leagues on that arm, it's a major red flag.
“He really knows how to pitch,” manager Joe Girardi said. “The next couple days, that's when you kind of take a sigh of relief and hope nothing comes back . I was pleasantly surprised how solid his command was.”
“It didn't surprise me to see how he pitched,” Swisher said. “He's been doing this his whole career. Coming back to the place he used to call home, I definitely think he wanted to pick up a win today.”
Sabathia's timing was perfect when you consider that Friday's win averted the Yankees' first five-game losing streak on the road since Girardi took over from Joe Torre in 2008.
“We went to Chicago and they put it on us,” Sabathia said. “To be able to come here and get a win, hopefully we can get it rolling.”