CC Sabathia continues to look like anything but an ace

CC Sabathia pitching in a game against the

CC Sabathia pitching in a game against the Rays. (Sept. 14, 2012) (Credit: David Pokress )

CC Sabathia insisted again Friday night that he's healthy and has no lingering discomfort from two separate DL stints, one for a groin strain and another involving elbow inflammation.

But is that good news or bad?

If this is how a physically fit Sabathia pitches for the remainder of the regular season, we can postpone any conversation about his status for the playoffs because the Yankees aren't likely to get that far.

Sabathia again failed to put to rest the persistent questions about his health in a 6-4 loss to the Rays, who dented him for six hits and four runs in 62/3 innings. He was unable to hold a lead for the fifth straight start, and the Yankees have lost the last four of those games. He has taken the loss in three of them.

This can't continue if the Yankees plan to hold off the Orioles. Sabathia also welcomed the Rays back into the AL East scrum with Friday's flop.

"He's a big factor in this," Joe Girardi said. "He's been that since he's been here. He's been the leader of our staff."

If it had been someone other than David Price on the mound for Tampa Bay, Sabathia might have earned a win. But the Yankees hold Sabathia to a higher standard.

"CC was signed to be an ace, and you anticipate that," general manager Brian Cashman said before the game. "But at the same time, you know recently he was going through an elbow issue, so it makes you curious if that's still bothering him.''

Cashman added that he was "anxious" to see how Sabathia would pitch. His performance presumably didn't do much to settle his nerves. Although the GM said he "believes" in this Yankees team and remains "confident" this group will get to the playoffs, Sabathia hasn't deserved such a leap of faith.

Price did what he had to do to keep the fading Rays from falling any further out of contention. Sabathia, on the other hand, couldn't hold his ground. While his velocity returned for a night, topping out at 94 mph and sitting mostly at 91-92, the Rays got to him in a few pivotal spots.

The fifth was one of those occasions. Sabathia had retired 10 of 11 before Chris Gimenez, a catcher at Triple-A Durham for most of this season who was hitting .215 entering the at-bat, fought back from a 1-and-2 count to hit a leadoff double that made him the first of five straight Rays to reach base.

"Stuff like that kills you in games," Sabathia said. "Whether it's April, October or the World Series, it kills you."

Before Friday's game, Girardi acknowledged that the reason for Sabathia's recent lack of velocity could be any number of things, including the more than 2,500 innings he's pitched.

But Sabathia had the benefit of an extra day of rest on this turn, which might have given him the slight uptick on the radar gun. One of the hardest pitches Sabathia threw all night was a 94-mph fastball to Gimenez, but it split the plate, and he hammered a drive that one-hopped the bullpen wall in left-centerfield.

That stunned Sabathia and opened the door to a crucial three-run inning for the Rays. Since beating the Indians on Aug. 24, his first start back from a DL stint for elbow inflammation, Sabathia is 0-3 with a 4.67 ERA. That's hardly reassuring.

"He believes he's healthy," Cashman said. "Says he's got no complaints. But at the same time, I think he's probably got a lot of Derek Jeter in him, too. If he's got something, he's certainly not going to use it as an excuse."

Then somebody else had better dream one up, because this is not the Sabathia the Yankees thought they were getting for that five-year, $122-million extension he signed last October.

Until somebody comes up with a reason for that, the Yankees can expect more questions. One of them might be why they're not in the playoffs.

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