David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
HOUSTON - OK, so maybe Andy Pettitte isn't the most objective person to ask about CC Sabathia.
"I love him to death,'' Pettitte said Monday at Minute Maid Park. "I love him like a brother.''
But if you're looking for someone to put into perspective what Sabathia faces this season -- he makes his 11th Opening Day start Tuesday night against the Astros -- few understand that better than Pettitte.
He's familiar with the pressure, the responsibility and really just the transition a pitcher must make from one decade to the next. Not in Kansas City, either. In the Bronx, for a Yankees team that needs the slimmed-down Sabathia to be huge again.
After all the talk of his diminished velocity last season -- raising questions about what Sabathia had left -- he made us believers in spring training with a 1.29 ERA. Pettitte, who taught Sabathia his signature cut fastball during a brief visit to Tampa, insists that success was no mirage.
"He's in a good place,'' Pettitte said. "When you put in a lot of work, that gives you a little bit of an edge, too. I feel like his best years -- as long as he stays healthy -- are yet to come. The game is going to continue to slow down for him, and he's going to get better and better."
It did for Pettitte, and he's an authority on the subject, having pitched to the age of 41 before retiring last season. Why can't it be the same for Sabathia? The mileage may have stripped him of his once-overpowering fastball, but Sabathia is using his changeup, slider and Pettitte-brand cutter to lethal effect lately.
While those spring training numbers are now wiped away, we can't exactly call them meaningless. Sabathia knew he was in peak shape coming to Tampa.
"I feel unbelievable,'' he said Monday before the Yankees' workout. "All the work in the offseason, this spring, has really paid off. My arm feels great, my knees feel fantastic, so I have no complaints.''
The Yankees will have to trust him on that. A year ago, with Sabathia coming off elbow surgery, we were led to believe that it was just a matter of building up arm strength, that the velocity would return. But it never really did, and now the Yankees have to accept that it's gone.
What that means for Sabathia's ace status is unresolved. His 4.78 ERA last season was the highest of his career. The 14 wins were his fewest since 2006, and he had never before lost 13 games. He was mortal, a beatable pitcher on the back nine. And now Sabathia must convince everyone -- including his front office -- that he can be an ace again, not just a No. 1.
"We'll find out,'' Brian Cashman said. "An ace is a term you can throw around in this game to about eight people. It's a small club. We'll see what happens.''
There are technical aspects to Sabathia's turnaround, one that began last season right before a hamstring strain finished him. Joe Girardi credited his improved changeup and a fastball that started sinking again rather than "cutting over the middle of the plate.'' But every pitcher gets to a point that knowledge becomes his greatest ally, and Pettitte thinks Sabathia has arrived.
"I felt like in my mid-30s, my energy level wasn't like it was,'' Pettitte said. "But I felt like I could just see how hitters were reacting to me, what they were trying to do. I think [Sabathia] is going to do the same thing.''
Pettitte is a retired member of the Core Four and holds a special place in franchise history. But Sabathia is one of only six Yankees to make five Opening Day starts, and the first since Ron Guidry, whose finale was as far back as 1986. Leading the Yankees to a second World Series title while resurrecting himself would be a notable achievement.
Said Pettitte: "I'm pulling for him."