David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CC Sabathia, unlike so many of his injured teammates, was present and accounted for Monday at Yankee Stadium. The big No. 52 was supposed to be a comforting sight, someone with shoulders broad enough to carry the Yankees through the next two months to compensate for a decidedly weaker lineup.
Instead, Sabathia proved to be a 6-7 impostor on Opening Day, a finesse pitcher in the body of a flamethrower. And now the Yankees, after an 8-2 loss to the Red Sox, can only hope this was an aberration, not a trend for a 32-year-old coming back from a November elbow cleanup.
This is not about one game, or one ugly afternoon in the Bronx made worse by plummeting temperatures and steady rain that chased away even the most optimistic fans by the ninth inning. The Yankees looked as bad as many believe they actually will be this season, but the biggest disappointment of Opening Day was Sabathia, who gave up eight hits, four walks and four runs before leaving after five innings.
The reason? Sabathia showed a disturbing lack of velocity, and without a dominant fastball, everything else was less effective. According to Pitch FX, Sabathia's fastball ranged from 89.9 to 91.7 mph, well below the 95 mph he usually reaches by midseason. He also threw nearly as many changeups (33) as fastballs (35).
With Sabathia in a more hittable range, the Red Sox had only two swings-and-misses on fastballs and 16 on the changeup. Afterward, Sabathia and Joe Girardi blamed it on the pitcher's usual April issues -- the cold climate, building arm strength, etc.
"Early on, you don't see a lot of velocity from him," Girardi said. "It seems to take him really a month for that velocity to bump up. We saw 93s in spring training, so I think you'll see it as time goes on. But we're pretty used to not having the same velocity in April as he does in June and July."
Last year, pitching inside the Tropicana Dome on Opening Day, Sabathia had a fastball clocked at from 92.4 to 94.1 mph, a significant uptick from what he showed against the Red Sox. Did the roof really make all the difference? Or is the mileage on his arm beginning to take a toll on Sabathia, who's piled up 2,569 innings in his 13-year career and is coming off four straight 200-plus seasons?
Look at what happened to another workhorse, Johan Santana, who wore down over time. That's not to say Sabathia is headed for major arm trouble in the near future, but a strain like that can manifest itself in different ways.
For now, Sabathia says there's nothing to worry about and that Monday was only a symptom of what he usually goes through at this time of year. He has a career 4.13 ERA for March/April, his worst of any month, and this performance reflected that.
"I'm sure that the velocity will keep coming back and the arm strength will keep building up the more I throw," Sabathia said. "But health-wise, I feel fine -- my elbow, shoulder, everything. It's just time, I guess, to build the arm strength back up."
The Yankees don't have the luxury of patience. With a bunch of All-Stars expected to be on the disabled list for at least another month, they need Sabathia to be at his shutdown best as soon as possible. When he reached back for that one crucial pitch Monday, Sabathia couldn't execute it.
The closest he came to doing so was during a pivotal second inning. With two on and one out, Sabathia was ahead in the count 1-and-2 to Jackie Bradley Jr., who was making his major-league debut. Sabathia thought he had Bradley struck out with a fastball on the outside corner that was called a ball, and he went on to walk him. Boston followed with four runs, three after two were out.
"I thought it was a strike," Sabathia said, "but I still needed to make better pitches. Whether he calls it a strike or not, that's no excuse for giving up the runs after."
It might have been a much better Opening Day for the Yankees if Sabathia had gotten that call. But if he doesn't regain his velocity, and soon, this team is going to have much bigger problems, ones they'd rather not consider at the moment.
"I think he will be all right," Francisco Cervelli said. "In a couple more starts, he'll start throwing his gasoline."
If not, the Yankees' season could wind up in flames.