ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – CC Sabathia admitted over the weekend to being “nervous” about taking on an unfamiliar role.
Turned out, the veteran looked as if he’d been doing it his entire career.
The 38-year-old Sabathia, making the first regular-season bullpen appearance of his 19-year career Tuesday night, struck out two in a perfect fourth inning against the Rays at Tropicana Field.
His encouraging outing, however, did not come in a victory as Yankees bats never got going in a 2-1 loss in 12 innings in front of 16,699.
Ji-Man Choi’s leadoff homer to start the bottom of the 12th off Cory Gearrin, the Yankees’ 11th pitcher of the night, won it for the Rays, locked in a battle with Cleveland and Oakland for the AL’s two wild-card spots.
“We threw the ball really well, they threw the ball really well,” Boone said of the Rays, who used nine pitchers. “That’s September baseball.”
Chad Green set down six straight – the first five via strikeout – in two innings before Gearrin came on and served up a 2-and-2 slider that Choi, a former Yankee, launched to right-center for his 18th homer.
The Yankees (102-56), who entered the night in a virtual tie with the Astros for the best record in the Majors, managed seven hits against nine Rays’ pitchers, striking out 13 times. The Rays (94-64) struck out 17 times.
The Bombers received a scare in the sixth when Gio Urshela was hit on his left wrist by a 95-mph fastball thrown by Diego Castillo and he left the game an inning later. X-rays, however, were negative and Urshela afterward said of the wrist, “it’s fine,” and didn’t rule out being able to play Wednesday.
“Right now, it seems like we dodged it,” Boone said.
Meanwhile, the night was a test of sorts for Sabathia, who will get one more bullpen appearance this weekend against the Rangers, one he easily passed against a Rays team, depending on playoff seedings and the results of the AL wild-card race and game, the Yankees could see in October.
“It’s exciting, I’m excited, I’m nervous, I don’t know what to expect,” Sabathia said Sunday. “It’s the first time going out on the field and [thinking], ‘I’ve never done this,’ so we’ll see."
He, and the Yankees, had to like what they saw.
With Domingo German likely done for the season because of an alleged domestic violence incident and Dellin Betances out for the year after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in his first (and only) outing of the season Sept. 15 in Toronto, the Yankees, likely to go with 13 pitchers on the 25-man ALDS roster, will spend much of this week auditioning various bullpen arms.
Boone, several times in the last month, has said “everything’s on the table” in terms of October pitching strategy.
Hence, on Tuesday night Boone rolled out this assemblage of relievers after Jordan Montgomery served as a two-inning opener and before calling on one of his established late-inning arms: Ben Heller, Sabathia, Stephen Tarpley, Tyler Lyons and Luis Cessa.
Tommy Kahnle came on for the seventh, the score still tied at 1-1, the result of Cameron Maybin’s 10th homer of the season in the third and Kevin Kiermaier’s blast off Tarpley in the fifth.
Heller was solid and Cessa, after issuing back-to-back two-out walks in the sixth to load the bases, got a groundout by Joey Wendle on a 3-and-1 pitch.
Still, this night was mostly about how Sabathia, whose one previous bullpen appearance came in Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS, would respond to his shift to the bullpen.
By all accounts, quite well.
“It’s impressive, I thought he threw the ball really well,” Austin Romine said. “I think he can do it. He showed he can do it.”