David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
Too skinny to succeed? CC Sabathia?
Of all the ideas floated before last night's game at Tropicana Field, that had to be the least scientific hypothesis. Fatigue, arm angles, hundreds upon hundreds of innings -- we covered a bunch of them with Joe Girardi, a former catcher who knows something about how pitchers function.
Then again, Sabathia is looking a bit thinner than usual these days. And for a guy officially listed at 290 pounds, maybe the road grays do appear a little roomier than we've come to expect.
Is that change in physique, however slight, affecting CC's mechanics?
Girardi wasn't buying that one.
"No, it shouldn't," the manager said. "I mean, it's like last year. We hit too many home runs and this year we weren't hitting enough. So it's always something."
He's right. In the never-ending quest to figure out why the Yankees don't win every day, Sabathia is among the bigger riddles this season, but the concern heading into Saturday night's showdown with David Price was legitimate. Since June 28, a stretch of 10 starts, Sabathia was 3-7 with a 6.16 ERA and hitters had tuned him up to an .845 OPS.
Combine that with the fact that August tends to be the best month for Sabathia -- 3.38 ERA, .767 winning percentage in his career -- and it all suggests more than simply an off year.
What happened in Saturday night's 4-2 loss to the Rays didn't do much to change that. Girardi called Sabathia's five scoreless innings "probably the best he's thrown all year in a group," but that optimism vanished when Tampa Bay overcame his 2-0 lead with three runs in the sixth. Just like that, we were back to talking about misfiring release points.
"It's just one of those things," Sabathia said. "Usually, when I lose my command a couple of times, I get it right back. To have to go down like this, it [stinks].''
Sabathia is only 33, but he's already stacked up 2,735 innings in 13 years, and there's no erasing that kind of mileage. As for how that wear-and-tear manifests itself, it seems as if we're witnessing those symptoms at the moment.
"We all kind of have our ideas what it is, and it could be more than one," Girardi said before the game. "But I think that might contribute to it."
The manager then joked that the Yankees can't just pull a Ferris Bueller, prop Sabathia up on stilts and spin him in reverse to shave innings off his personal odometer. With five weeks left, they have no choice but to lean on him and hope he can be competent for a few more starts.
Sabathia managed to keep pace with Price, even if both washed out earlier than expected. Sabathia retired 13 of 14 before Sam Fuld's leadoff single in the sixth inning. But his career 4.39 ERA inside the Trop suggested the good fortune wouldn't last, and the Rays got to him when Ben Zobrist ripped a tying two-run double and Evan Longoria delivered the go-ahead run with a single.
Rather than feel as though their ace was back, the Yankees were left wondering if the Sabathia they have known will ever return. He is due another $76 million guaranteed through 2016 and holds a $25-million option for '17 that vests as long as he doesn't spend more than 45 days on the DL the previous season with a left shoulder injury.
But that's too far away to worry about now. Sabathia pitched better than his 4.83 ERA coming in, even if he couldn't sustain it, and the Yankees can't spend too much time fretting over big-picture stuff as they plow into September.
"It's not something we're used to seeing, so it has been surprising," Girardi said afterward. "He's been such a workhorse for us. It's been a struggle."
Somehow, the Yankees have managed to overcome what has been a pedestrian year by Sabathia to stay in the playoff hunt, and that's pretty remarkable, given their fractured roster for most of this season. But if they intend to secure a playoff berth, it would help considerably if they didn't have to drag Sabathia on their backs along the way.
Even if he is lighter.