Yanks need Sabathia to be ace in the hole

CC Sabathia delivers a pitch during the first

CC Sabathia delivers a pitch during the first inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. (Sept. 14, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Now that Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova are back, and Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter are playing like their younger selves, the Yankees' path to the postseason seems pretty easy to figure out -- just hold off plucky Baltimore for the AL East crown.

If that fails, stay ahead of the Angels, Tigers and Rays, none of whom entered Thursday closer than 31/2 games from the second wild-card spot.

But let's assume the Yankees make it and play more than one postseason game. How far can they go? That's easy to figure, too.

It's as easy as A-B-CC.

CC Sabathia will take the mound for the first time in a week Friday vs. the A's. The ace of the staff has not pitched like an ace over his last four starts, going 0-3 with a 4.67 ERA. The Yankees are going to need him to be one in the playoffs, like he was in their championship season of 2009. It's that simple.

It's also unclear if he's physically up to it.

When a group of reporters approached Sabathia before last night's game, he said he had just arrived and needed "to go get treatment." He did not reappear.

Sabathia has been on the disabled list twice this season, first with a strained groin and then with elbow inflammation. He didn't want to go on the DL either time, but the Yankees have been as protective with him as the Mets were with rookie Matt Harvey. (For different reasons, obviously.)

Even manager Joe Girardi suggested Sabathia's career workload could be catching up with him. So there is more than the usual curiosity about tonight's start.

A week ago, after he allowed four runs in 62/3 innings in a 6-4 loss to the Rays, Sabathia (13-6, 3.63) said: "My arm feels good, my body feels good, so it's just up to me to go out and get out of some situations that come up every game. And I'm not doing that."

The Yankees are starting to feel whole. Why? The returns of Nova (six innings, two runs on Saturday) and Pettitte (five shutout innings Wednesday); the emergence of Ichiro; the continued brilliance of Jeter; yesterday's news that Mark Teixeira plans to test his injured calf in the instructional league next week.

If Sabathia proves he's back, too, then the Yankees will feel a lot better about their chances to make noise in the playoffs.

"I think we're all looking forward to ," Girardi said. "That would be great. I said that I have a lot of faith in CC, that he'll figure this out and get things righted."

After Hiroki Kuroda struck out 10 on Sunday in a win over the Rays, Girardi was asked if Sabathia was etched in stone as his No. 1 pitcher in a playoff series. Girardi laughed.

It's a legitimate question, though, if Sabathia doesn't turn it around. Kuroda and Pettitte will get postseason starts, and Hughes (who gave up four runs in five innings to Toronto Thursday night) and Nova are candidates if a fourth is needed.

But none of them are aces. That's Sabathia's role. That's why the Yankees are paying him $23 million this season in the first year of a five-year, $122-million contract extension.

"It's weird," Girardi said. "CC goes six innings, seven innings and gives up three runs and we say, 'What's wrong with CC?' He's still pitched OK. It's just not what we've seen the previous years he's been here. We need him to get on a roll, and [Friday] would be a good day to start."

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