TAMPA, Fla. — Needless to say, it has been some time since CC Sabathia was in spring training having to pitch well to earn a rotation job.

But before Sabathia’s start Thursday night against the Rays, Joe Girardi made it clear that was exactly the scenario the lefthander is facing as he begins his 16th season.

Though he gave up plenty of hard-hit balls, Sabathia rebounded from a slow beginning, allowing two runs and six hits in five innings in a 6-2 loss at Steinbrenner Field.

“I think it was important for him, important for us,” Girardi said. “He needed to throw well and he did.”

Realistically, most teams would take a five-inning, two-run outing from their fifth starter, the rotation spot Sabathia is competing for with Ivan Nova.

For a pitcher in a competition, Sabathia, 35, who entered the night with a 7.36 ERA in three appearances, doesn’t seem to be sweating it.

“That’s up to them,” he said afterward. “We’ll see what happens.”

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Sabathia settled down after allowing a run in the first on Evan Longoria’s homer and another in the second, when the Rays started the inning with three straight hits. Sabathia, who was pleased with his slider and new two-seam changeup he’s been working on with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, struck out Rene Rivera to end the second inning, the start of a stretch of six straight retired.

Scouts had Sabathia’s fastball sitting at 88 to 91 mph and his cutter at 86-89. His slider checked in at 79-81 and changeup at 82-84.

“Decent job,” one scout said. “Stuff was OK.”

Nova, slated to start today against the Orioles, has a 4.05 ERA in four starts and overall has outpitched Sabathia.

Still, it remains difficult to imagine the Yankees sticking Sabathia, 214-129 with a 3.69 ERA with no regular-season relief appearances in his career, in the bullpen.

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Girardi, however, insists it’s a step the Yankees are prepared to take if necessary.

“This is a really tough decision,” he said. “And it’s not necessarily a decision that we say is going to last the whole year. This is a game where you have to continually prove yourself. If you’re struggling, a lot of times, clubs will make changes.”

Sabathia, while not saying he deserves the job, has mostly talked around questions about the competition.

“It’s March. I keep saying I can’t put too much stock in it,” he said of HIS results. “But I feel good, and I’ve been feeling good. A lot better than I felt at this point last year.”