David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - At his back was the Yankees' four-game losing streak. Ahead? The uncertainty of Chris Capuano's 2015 debut, in the backyard of the defending American League champs.
In the middle, between that rock and a hard place, stood CC Sabathia. Just how he likes it. And Sabathia never looked more comfortable Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium.
We stripped Sabathia of his ace title years ago, then affixed it to Masahiro Tanaka after he arrived from the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season. These days, Michael Pineda probably comes the closest.
Stopper? The best Sabathia could do lately was try to slow things down -- the advancing arthritis in his knee, the toll of way too many innings. But Sabathia slipped back into that familiar role Saturday night like a pair of his favorite Jordans and led the Yankees to a badly needed 5-1 victory, stifling an aggressive Royals team that had feasted on lefty pitchers.
Sabathia gave up his only run on Mike Moustakas' sacrifice fly in the third inning, then struck out Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer to minimize the damage of a bases-loaded, none-out situation. He also navigated a downpour in the fifth to leave two more Royals and pick up rookie Jose Pirela after his throwing error. Sabathia got Cain to fly out to left and Hosmer on a liner to Pirela to erase the threat.
Sabathia retired his final eight batters before handing a 4-1 lead to the bullpen. Instead of unraveling, he did what aces do: contain the damage, then get his teammates back in position to do more of their own. There would be no goat horns for Pirela.
"That's what I'm out there to do," Sabathia said. "It's up to me, when they make mistakes, to have their back."
There's no better way for a pitcher to earn respect, and that's why Sabathia -- even when not at the height of his powers -- still maintains the highest stature in the Yankees' clubhouse. Now that his performance is matching his reputation again, the rotation can wait for Tanaka's recovery from a forearm strain.
Joe Girardi announced before the game that Tanaka will throw another bullpen session Monday in D.C., and if that goes well, presumably a rehab start Thursday at Triple-A Scranton.
When Tanaka first went down without warning, we figured the Yankees' playoff fate was tied to his return. But Sabathia has won two straight after beginning the season 0-5 and has trimmed his ERA to 4.67.
Before the game, Kansas City ranked second in the majors against lefthanders in OPS (.823) and batting average (.312). But Salvador Perez's fourth-inning double was the only extra-base hit off Sabathia a day after the Royals pulverized Yankees pitching.
"Whatever you call him, the ace or not, he's a tremendous pitcher that's had more success than 99 percent of the people that played this game," said Chase Headley, who hit a three-run homer. "He's the type of guy you really want to play well for."
Sabathia tied Bartolo Colon for the second-most wins by an active pitcher with 210, but it's his "team-first attitude" that other Yankees praised after the game.
Despite our skepticism during spring training, when the conversation always circled back to his diminished velocity and limited mobility, Sabathia insisted he would be fine.
The question now becomes how often he can continue to do it. If this is pride or willpower or a combination of both, so be it. The Yankees will ride it for as long as Sabathia can make it last. "CC's one of the toughest competitors I've ever been around," Girardi said.
Competing is one thing. Winning is quite another. And now he's doing both.