David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
HOUSTON - No offense to the Astros, but that wasn't supposed to happen. Not after everything we had been told about CC Sabathia for the past few weeks, what the pitcher himself assured us leading up to Tuesday night's opener.
We knew going in that spring-training stats were about as useful as a MetroCard in this Texas outpost. But Sabathia convinced us the 16 scoreless innings to wrap up the Grapefruit League were legit, his 1.27 ERA had some meaning.
And we fell for it.
The 89-mph fastball? Not to worry. Combined with an improved changeup, the slant on his slider and the newly developed cutter, you'd never know the difference. By the time they broke camp in Tampa, even the Yankees believed.
Unfortunately for CC, the Astros didn't buy into the hype. They looked at his pitches for what they actually were -- rawhide covered marshmallows -- and smacked Sabathia around for six hits and six runs in the first two innings en route to a 6-2 win over the Yankees.
"It got out of hand early," said Sabathia, who served up homers to Jesus Guzman and L.J. Hoes. "But I got hopefully 34 more starts left and I'm definitely not going to pitch like I did tonight in the first two innings. I'm not going to beat myself up about this."
No, the Astros took care of that. When Dexter Fowler led off the game with a 400-foot double to the grassy knoll situated beyond the centerfield warning track, we figured it to be a lucky punch. Sabathia was behind 2-and-0 and tried to slip an 88-mph fastball in for a strike.
The Yankees' defensive antics didn't help, and already down 2-0, Sabathia served up the blast to Guzman, who clubbed yet another 89-mph fastball. This one caromed high off the train bridge in left-centerfield.
And when Hoes opened the second inning with a homer, it was starting to get ridiculous. Two more doubles and Sabathia was downgraded from lapsed ace to bullpen-saver.
Afterward, the official explanation was that Sabathia's pitches were inadvertently "cutting" back over the plate, the same problem he blamed, in part, for giving up 28 homers last season. Sabathia again felt he was too "over-amped" on Opening Day, and in trying to keep those emotions in check, his mechanics got a little out of whack.
Checking back, it's not unusual for Sabathia, who is now 0-3 with a 7.72 ERA in six Opening Day starts for the Yankees. Not exactly what you want from an ace, but Sabathia has come to expect it from himself. He knows it's going to be a struggle from the moment he goes to bed.
"I feel like I'm a kid again," Sabathia said. "I'll sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day, so I think that's just some of the nervousness, the jitters."
A day earlier, Brian Cashman had questioned the notion of Sabathia as an ace, suggesting he needed to prove he deserved the title this season. And it's not like the general manager doesn't want that for Sabathia. The Yankees still owe him $76 million, and Sabathia holds a $25-million vesting option for 2017.
Sabathia's reinvention needs to work out for both parties. But knowing how much of an X-factor Sabathia could be, Cashman refused to say he was the vital cog to a rebound this year. "He's one of many," Cashman said before the opener. "He's a big piece, no doubt. He's the leader of our staff and someone that when he takes the mound every five days, we're used to feeling really good about."
Did two innings erase all those warm, fuzzy thoughts? Maybe not entirely. Sabathia did follow up with four scoreless innings. By then, maybe the Astros had exhausted themselves.
"I know it's the not the start we want," Girardi said, "but it's one game."
And one huge disappointment. The manager also has to be thinking that the Astros were supposed to be the easy part. The American League East is waiting. And those teams will make Tuesday night look like a pillow fight if Sabathia doesn't figure this out in a hurry.