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CC Sabathia deserves the benefit of Yankees’ doubt

CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees pitches

CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees pitches during the first inning of the spring training game against the Miami Marlins on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Foldy

TAMPA, Fla.

If CC Sabathia could guarantee us he’ll be the guy he was last September, the one with the 2.17 ERA in his final five starts, then we could end the debate over the No. 5 job right now.

And Sunday morning, after his early tutorial with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, that’s pretty much what Sabathia did. Or something fairly close to that.

As long as Sabathia’s changeup has the fade it did with Rothschild standing alongside the plate, getting the hitter’s-eye view, there’s reason for the Yankees to rely on their former ace — to feel better about naming him the fifth starter, and not only because of his $25-million salary.

For what Sabathia has done, totaling 214 wins in 15 seasons, he still deserves the benefit of the doubt. And if the confidence is there, along with the effective September changeup, Sabathia should get, at the very least, a few turns in the rotation. Then let those early results decide his fate, with Ivan Nova waiting as the Plan B.

“I know I can pitch,” Sabathia said Sunday. “I know I can get big-league hitters out. I’ve been doing that for a long time and I’m not really worried.”

Sabathia has had a rough go of it since he last stood on a major-league mound, checking into alcohol rehab immediately after the regular season ended. Now he’s hoping to recapture some of that late-summer success.

So far, it hasn’t materialized in the Grapefruit League. Sabathia has struggled to a 7.36 ERA in three starts, a disappointing number he attributes to a moody changeup. That was the focus of Sunday’s bullpen session with Rothschild, who stalked Sabathia from a few different vantage points.

Even with Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino throwing from the adjacent mounds, Rothschild devoted most of his attention to Sabathia. The two agreed to go back to the changeup grip he used last September despite the fact that Sabathia, feeling uncomfortable, ditched it for a different handle earlier in spring training.

“We need to get back to the one that’s the most effective,” Rothschild said. “We just have to get consistent fade to it and make sure that it doesn’t cut.”

Whenever Sabathia got knocked around last year, the explanation usually involved that “cutting” aspect to the changeup, leaving the pitch on a more hittable plane. Complicating things is that Sabathia often throws the changeup correctly during his side sessions but tends to rush himself in game situations, a problem that Rothschild noticed in Friday’s start against the Orioles.

That’s why class again was in session Sunday at what Brian Cashman refers to as “Larry Rothschild University.” If anyone can get Sabathia back on track, it’s Rothschild, who has studied him intently since coming on board in 2011. And for all the weight fluctuations, elbow cleanups and knee issues, Sabathia insists he’s physically sound.

“The knee’s fantastic,” Sabathia said. “First time I’ve been able to say that in a long time.”

The Yankees maintain that the fifth starter’s spot still is a competition, and while Sabathia was tuning his changeup under Rothschild’s watch, Nova was taking a 2½-hour bus ride for his start against the Twins in Fort Myers. Nova allowed four runs in 4 1⁄3 innings and has a 4.05 ERA in four Grapefruit League starts. But if we’re supposed to disregard spring training statistics, the Yankees really have no choice but to invest a few more starts in Sabathia.

There’s a bigger upside to going that route. Sabathia has never pitched in relief, and with the health concerns hovering like a dark cloud above the rest of the rotation, the Yankees need to maximize their assets. Putting Sabathia in the pen to start the season would feel like dumping him there, and then we’ll never know if Sabathia can do what he’s telling us he still can do. Give him that shot.

“I feel like I’m getting pretty close,” Sabathia said. “I feel like I’m ahead of where I was last year. Maybe even the year before. I’m feeling healthy. The delivery’s good. It’s just working on a couple pitches, and this is the time to do that.”

He’s got two more weeks. Then, when the games count, put Sabathia on the clock.

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