NEW YORK — Reports of CC Sabathia’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
The large lefthander assumed his role as ace of the Yankees staff, stopping a five-game losing streak dead in its tracks with 7⅓ dominating innings in a 4-1 win over the Red Sox Friday night. Sabathia’s strong outing far outweighed the return of Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis to the Yankees lineup, both of whom made contributions on offense.
Teixeira had a leadoff walk in the second that started a two-run Yankees rally, and Youkilis’s RBI single in the fifth provided the third Yankees run.
Sabathia struck out 10, allowed six hits, one run, and threw 109 pitches. Mike Napoli’s RBI double in the seventh provided Boston with its only run.
The strong outing pulled the Yankees to within one game of the Red Sox in the AL East. Yankees manager Joe Girardi called it a big win. They not only beat the first-place Red Sox, but they beat their ace, Jon Lester, who didn’t have his best stuff.
“I thought it was a big win after the little stretch we’ve been through,” said Girardi, whose team had lost five straight. “As I said, all teams are going to go through it and that’s the bottom line, but I thought it was an important win.”
Reeling after being swept by the crosstown Mets, the Yankees were in danger of their season getting out of hand. But it didn’t. And it didn’t because of Sabathia and the growing confidence the team now has with Teixeira and Youkilis providing quality at-bats, as the Yankees had been swinging at too many early pitches. (They had zero walks in their three previous games vs. the Mets.)
To Girardi, Sabathia’s strong outing was as simple as the warm weather.
“It’s kind of what we’re used to seeing from CC,’’ Girardi said. “If you look at CC in the four-plus years we’ve had him here, this is usually where he is at this time of the year. I understand when people have cause for concern, but a lot of times when it warms up, he gets on a roll. This is the best stuff we’ve seen him throw. I haven’t seen any 94s [miles per hour] until tonight. He’s the same guy. It gets hot, he gets better.”
Besides having a good fastball, he also had an exceptional slider, the pitch he employed for 60 percent of his outs.
“I just felt I was more aggressive in the strike zone and that’s what I wanted to establish right away and stay with it,” said Sabathia, who is 5-4 with a 3.71 ERA.
Sabathia said he was never concerned about the reduced velocity on his fastball because, “When I was younger, I thought velocity was more important than anything, but as I grew older I realized location is the most important thing. I think I located my fastball better than I have been.”
He said his success was more mental than physical. He told himself he needed to be more aggressive to Sox hitters, and he was.
Sabathia had been 8-10 with a 4.33 ERA against the Red Sox in his career, and since joining the Yankees in 2009 he was 6-6 with a 4.53 ERA. He was 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA over the last three seasons against the Red Sox. Suffice to say, the Red Sox have never been overly worried about facing him, which is why Friday night was important for him and the Yankees.
He basically reestablished himself against the Yankees’ biggest rival. On the flip side, Lester, who had won five straight starts against the Yankees, was beaten by a lineup that has a little more confidence, especially against lefthanded starters.
By adding Youkilis and Teixeira, the Yankees seem to have a more balanced lineup, more righthanded hitters to offset a good lefthanded pitcher. And when there’s a righty on the mound, the Yankees also have Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner in reserve, two hitters who helped keep the Yankees afloat with all of their early-season injuries.
“It’s great to have our two guys back. Whenever you can add two hitters like that to our lineup, that’s only going to help us,” Sabathia said.
The Red Sox are having problems because Jacoby Ellsbury has a groin strain and might sit for part, or all, of this series. Daniel Nava was inserted in the leadoff spot and he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. He also grounded into a double play.
The Red Sox already have Will Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino out of the lineup. So while the Yankees get healthier, the Red Sox are getting injured. Ellsbury had been red hot, one fewer top player Sabathia had to worry about.
If Sabathia is on the right track, it gives the Yankees a powerful 1-2 punch with Hiroki Kuroda. Andy Pettitte is due back Monday to pitch against the Indians, which makes the outlook of this team rosy. Mariano Rivera put two on in the ninth but got out of it with no harm done.
All in all, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry should blossom during the course of the season. Both teams appear to have the depth to withstand injuries and the type of players that won’t be mentally decimated by negativity.
Sabathia isn’t done yet. In fact, he may get better. Every year, it seems we hear about how Sabathia has pitched too many innings because he’s been such a workhorse and it’s all going to catch up to him. Maybe it catches up to him for a while, but for a whole season?
That would be wishful thinking by the Red Sox.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.