David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joe Girardi spent close to 10 minutes talking about CC Sabathia's velocity, or lack thereof, before Sunday's series finale against the Tigers at Comerica Park. It's been a popular topic since Sabathia's Opening Day clunker, but after all the chatter, Girardi finally got to the bottom line.
"If you're pitching well," the manager said, "no one cares about velocity."
A few hours later, Sabathia ended that discussion -- or at least put it on hold -- by shutting down the powerful Tigers for seven innings as the Yankees cruised to a 7-0 win. Before we get into the actual gun readings -- long story short, they were nearly identical to last Monday's outing -- maybe it's best to let someone who stood in the box against Sabathia describe what he saw.
"You know what? Usually CC tries to overpower you," said Torii Hunter, whose battles with Sabathia date to their Twins-Indians years. "But today he pitched. He usually tries to throw the fastball by you, but today he used his changeup, he used his slider and mixed in the fastball."
Hunter's 88 plate appearances against Sabathia are the most of any active major-leaguer, so he knows him pretty well. Hunter got the first of four hits, all singles, off Sabathia -- pulling a 91-mph fastball into leftfield in the first inning -- and the Tigers failed to do much with three walks.
Sabathia is not the same pitcher right now. There's no denying that. On Sunday, his average fastball was 90.89 mph with a max speed of 92.47, according to Pitch FX. Those readings were a fraction higher than what he was throwing on Opening Day against the Red Sox -- 90.62 and 92.37, respectively. But he was far more effective, primarily because of what he was able to do with that fastball.
"The difference was his fastball command," said Francisco Cervelli, who also was behind the plate for his lackluster showing against Boston. "He was able to hit the corners and make the hitters uncomfortable. When he can hit the corners like that, he's unhittable."
In the two previous games, the Tigers totaled 16 runs and 26 hits, demolishing Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes before feasting on the bullpen. That figured to be the equivalent of batting practice for Detroit leading up to Sabathia, who was 2-5 with a 6.80 ERA in eight previous starts at Comerica.
But he realized what Sunday's game meant to the Yankees, and in the bigger picture, the stabilizing influence he brings to a pitching staff that has taken its lumps lately. With that in mind, Sabathia never let the Tigers up for air. Only one Tiger reached second base in his seven innings, which made the Yankees' 3-0 lead at the time feel like twice that.
"I do think that CC really has a lot of pride in what he does," Girardi said. "He understands the ace role and that we needed to win a game today. I think he probably took a lot of satisfaction [from beating] a team that's been tough on him."
All of that was true, but no one was tougher on Sabathia than the pitcher himself. After he whiffed Austin Jackson with an 84-mph changeup to end the seventh inning, his last, he stormed off the mound, pumping his fist and screaming.
Some mistook that emotional display for a triumphant roar. It was just the opposite. He needed 18 pitches to complete that 1-2-3 inning, and that didn't put him in a celebratory mood. "I was really upset with myself," he said, "for not making better pitches and maybe being able to go back out for the eighth. I know the bullpen's been taxed and we don't have an off day, so I was trying to pitch deeper into the game. I was just a little frustrated."
Those feelings don't show up on radar guns, and Sunday's performance was the strongest indication that Sabathia, despite still lagging in the velocity department, is capable of delivering like the ace he needs to be.
Sabathia couldn't do it a week earlier against the Red Sox, which is what set off the sirens. But now it looks as though the other teams should be worried. Not the Yankees.