ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Throughout a spring in which there was far more bad than good from CC Sabathia, the pitcher maintained all was well. He was healthy and felt strong, the lefthander said, and the results would be there when the games counted.
Supported early by a rare — and somewhat shocking — jolt of power by Ronald Torreyes, Sabathia helped give the Yankees their first win of 2017, 5-0, over the Rays Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.
“I thought he was awesome,” said Chase Headley, who went 2-for-4 in improving to 5-for-8. “Big start when we really needed it.”
Sabathia threw five innings in which there were few hard-hit balls off him. Five relievers completed a five-hit shutout. The 36-year-old, who worked seamlessly with Gary Sanchez — “I didn’t shake him at all,” Sabathia said of the 24-year-old catcher — allowed three hits and two walks and struck out two. His importance to a rotation loaded with uncertainty can’t be overstated.
Sabathia had a 6.75 ERA in four Grapefruit League starts and was hit hard in a minor-league game at the end of spring training. Joe Girardi again dismissed Sabathia’s subpar performance in Florida and called the night “encouraging.”
“With CC, I don’t ever make much of his springs. Some other guys you might worry about, but CC’s a veteran and we’ve seen it before,” Girardi said. “I think for CC, mentally, he turns it up more than a notch (for the regular season).”
Rays righthander Jake Odorizzi, 2-1 with a 2.29 ERA against the Yankees last season, allowed four runs and seven hits in six innings. The Yankees (1-1) hit two homers off him, Torreyes most surprisingly. Few would have picked the 5-7, 150-pound utilityman with one previous career homer to be the first Yankee to go deep this season.
“I don’t think a whole lot of us would have bet on that,” Girardi said.
But homer Torreyes did, ripping the first pitch he saw from Odorizzi in the third to leftfield for a homer that drove in Aaron Judge. Matt Holliday added an RBI double in the inning to make it 3-0.
Headley would homer in the sixth to make it 4-0, and his single against Austin Pruitt in the eighth made it 5-0.
Some drama came late when, with one out in the eighth, two Rays had infield hits against Jonathan Holder. In came Dellin Betances, who walked Evan Longoria to load the bases. The righthander got out of it, striking out Rickie Weeks Jr. on a curveball, then getting pinch hitter Logan Morrison to ground softly to first.
Sabathia, coming off a 2016 in which he went 9-12 with a 3.91 ERA, honored his No. 2 position in the rotation. That designation, of course, came more from the unpredictably of the rotation after Masahiro Tanaka than anything else. Still, Sabathia’s finish to last season — 2-2, 2.37 ERA in his last eight starts — gave the Yankees hope that he had made the complete transition from power pitcher to finesse.
“I think he learned how to pitch with the stuff that he had,” Girardi said before the game.
Sabathia, though sharp, particularly with his cutter and two-seam fastball, was not without help from his defense. Torreyes made several standout plays at short and Headley had a couple at third.
“Unbelievable,” Sabathia said. “It’s fun to have those guys making plays behind me.”
Sabathia’s velocity caught Girardi’s eye as the lefthander’s fastball sat in the 91-92 mph range, up a tick or two from normal. “I felt pretty good,” Sabathia said.
“I’ve been healthy. It is what it is, I guess.”
And just as Sabathia said it would be.