David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Accountability is usually the difference between playing baseball and actually winning games. Freddy Garcia knows that. So does CC Sabathia. The Yankees, in trying to steady themselves after a wobbly April, could point to both Sunday as reasons why things should improve.
A few hours before Sabathia threw his first pitch, Joe Girardi did what he had to do by removing Garcia from the rotation. Everyone saw it coming, even Garcia, who knew his 12.51 ERA was a one-way ticket to the bullpen. The Yankees, with a World Series to win, aren't waiting around for him to figure things out.
"I didn't pitch the way I'm supposed to pitch," Garcia said. "That's the reality. When you play in New York, they expect you to pitch good."
Good for Garcia. He understands the difference between the Bronx and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Maybe Phil Hughes will get the message. A month into the season, it's now less about fretting over problems and more about fixing them, which is what the Yankees tried to do by naming David Phelps as Garcia's replacement for Thursday's start in Kansas City.
Girardi likes Phelps and believes he can be a reliable starter at this level. For now, he is looking like a placeholder for Andy Pettitte, scheduled to pitch for Class A Tampa Monday night in his fourth start. That's more promising news for a rotation in need of stability, the kind provided by Sabathia in Sunday's 6-2 win over the Tigers.
There are few more comforting things in Girardi's world now than handing the ball to Sabathia, especially after the manager watched Garcia decimate his bullpen twice in the previous week. Sunday, in a six-hour span, Girardi made sure he no longer had to answer questions about Garcia -- a constant, irritating drumbeat -- and also could put to rest any early concerns about Sabathia.
That's a pretty decent double-dip for a manager. After a pair of six-inning no-decisions to start the season, Sabathia motored to his third straight win, and did it by going eight innings back to back. He needed only 106 pitches and retired 17 of 19 before the Tigers could get consecutive hits.
"You're talking about a guy that's signed for a long time and you expect big things," Girardi said. "So that gives me the confidence, when he does get off to a slow start, that things are going to turn around because he's done it time and time again. I've seen it firsthand."
Girardi is hoping that faith eventually will extend to the rest of the rotation, but that won't happen overnight. Sabathia trimmed the starters' ERA from 6.38 to 6.08 after 21 games, but that's still 14th in the American League.
"Of course we want to pitch a lot better than we have," Sabathia said. "The luxury of pitching for the Yankees is that you don't have to be perfect every time out or throw a shutout. But we take pride in what we do and we know we have to pitch better. All of us."
Sabathia was being nice by including himself in that group. Stifling the Tigers for eight innings is as good as it gets. There's not much room for improvement there.
But the Yankees are well equipped to win a slugfest with any team, in either league. Stray moonshots such as the one Prince Fielder launched against Sabathia are nothing to worry about. The mission now is to get as good at preventing runs as scoring them, and the Yankees seem to be taking the necessary steps toward achieving that goal. In Sabathia, they have the right man leading the way.
"I always feel a responsibility to go out there and pitch well," Sabathia said. "There's no added pressure, there's nothing extra. It is what it is. I'm always confident I can go out there and hold the other team down."