David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
Jon Lester was everything CC Sabathia wished he could have been Saturday at Fenway Park. Or used to be. And that had to hurt even more.
It's only a matter of time before the Red Sox wrap up the American League East, and when that happens, Lester will concentrate on tuning up for October, a month he could own if he keeps pitching like this.
The Yankees barely made him break a sweat on a brilliant Boston afternoon, and Lester -- as a true ace does -- kept his foot on their throats the whole way.
Lester carried the Sox through eight innings, allowed only three hits and strutted off the field to the roar of 37,510 fans who can't wait to see him again. It was the type of performance Sabathia had been known for since coming to the Yankees but has never really delivered this season -- not coming close even once during a soul-searching second half.
For Lester, with the Red Sox days away from clinching the division title, the 5-1 win had the feeling of a victory lap. For Sabathia, it was something less than that -- a lot less.
The desperate Yankees needed Sabathia to provide a glimmer of hope, a shoulder to lean on, a day for him to do most of the heavy lifting, if not all of it.
But Sabathia (13-13, 4.90 ERA) hasn't been that pitcher for a while now, and after the Red Sox whacked him around for five runs in six innings, there's little reason to believe he can be again -- for this season, anyway.
With the Yankees in jeopardy of slipping out of the wild-card race, there had been no bigger assignment for Sabathia, and he flunked it.
"I've always been a guy that said 'bend, don't break,' and I've been breaking a lot this year,'' he said. "When I get a couple of guys on base and I'm not able to make the pitch to get out of the inning -- that's something I kind of prided myself on my whole career, and it just hasn't happened this year.''
Alex Rodriguez said it best after Friday night's loss -- the Red Sox are a "handful'' right now. They've scored an MLB-best 777 runs, are first with a .793 OPS and trail only the Tigers in batting average (.285 to .276). But the Yankees have invested $182 million in Sabathia to contain fearsome lineups like that -- to be the savior when they beg for one -- and he keeps coming up woefully short in that department.
Sabathia's downward spiral after the All-Star break has been especially disturbing. His 6.58 ERA in the second half is the third-worst among qualified starters in both leagues. The Mariners' Joe Saunders (7.11) and the Phillies' Kyle Kendrick (6.91) are the only two below Sabathia, and they pitch for teams that are 15 or more games behind the second wild-card club.
The Yankees aren't playing out the string here. Not yet, and it would be nice if Sabathia could do more to keep them in the playoff chase for the next two weeks.
There's no changing the numbers. It's been a disgrace of a season for him, and Sabathia isn't ducking that responsibility. But every time he takes the mound represents a fresh start, a chance to be a hero, and Sabathia again folded like a lawn chair against the Red Sox.
In five starts against Boston this year, Sabathia has a 7.22 ERA and has allowed at least four runs in four of them. Maybe it was foolish to expect anything different from him on this particular September afternoon. But with so much at stake, was it unreasonable to think he might come up big this one time after doing it so many times in his 13-year career?
"It's very frustrating because everyone keeps telling me I'm close,'' Sabathia said. "But I don't see it. I want results. I know the team wants results. I know the fans want results. It's just tough not being able to deliver.''
If Sabathia wanted to remember what it looks like to deliver, to be reminded of those results he talked about, all he had to do was study the other guy on the mound from his seat in the Yankees' dugout.
Only one pitcher stepped up like an ace, and to no one's surprise, it was the wrong one for the Yankees.
That's what made it feel even worse.