Inside the Yankees’ clubhouse, a few hours before his start Wednesday night, CC Sabathia did what veteran pitchers do: chill by his locker, stretched out in T-shirt and shorts, trying to relax until getting the ball later that night against the Red Sox.
Across the room stood Masahiro Tanaka, surrounded by reporters, being asked for the umpteenth time what’s wrong with his splitter, slider and overall mental state. Tanaka replied to the questions but again was unable to provide any answers.
The role reversal taking place in the Yankees’ rotation at the moment, two months into the season, features a remarkable juxtaposition of two aces. One in Sabathia, whose best days were supposed to be behind him, and Tanaka, now a confused pitcher facing an uncertain future.
With Tanaka in turmoil, and the Yankees trying to prevent the Red Sox from swiping the AL East lead before departing the Bronx, Joe Girardi was fortunate to have Sabathia on the mound last night. Matched up with reigning Cy Young champ Rick Porcello, it was no contest, as Sabathia required only 95 pitches for eight scoreless innings in delivering the Yankees’ 8-0 victory.
“We needed this,” Girardi said.
Luis Severino may have the rotation’s lowest ERA (2.90) and the most strikeouts (76). But it is Sabathia, at age 36, who has the right numbers for these particular spots after he improved to 6-0 with a 1.25 ERA in seven starts following a Yankees loss this season. The Yankees also had been slipping a bit of late, and were 11-14 since reaching their high-water mark of 12 games over .500 (21-9) on May 8.
But with first place at stake this week, this was a chance to draw a line in the dirt with Sabathia, who kept the Red Sox subdued from the opening three-pitch strikeout of Mookie Betts. Sabathia had five Ks overall and the eight-inning stint was his longest outing without a walk since 2013. As Tanaka struggles to decipher his broken code, Sabathia’s revival has been key to stabilizing the rest of the rotation.
“He’s been holding us down for the last three years,” Sabathia said. “So it’s up to us as a staff to pick him up.”
Sabathia did the heavy lifting in taming a Red Sox team that ripped Tanaka for three homers in the series opener. Only twice did Boston even put runners in scoring position. The fifth inning was more precarious. After Aaron Hicks’ poor read wound up as a Josh Rutledge leadoff triple, Sabathia got the first out when he reached behind him to barehand Jackie Bradley’s sharp comebacker (Statcast: 97.9 mph). The next two outs were less eventful.
“It was right there, so I grabbed it,” Sabathia said of his startling reflex. “It was a big play at the time.”
Sabathia’s most anxious moment came with one out in the fourth, when he stopped abruptly and stripped off the knee brace he wears under his uniform. The main strap snapped on the pitch that got Hanley Ramirez on a grounder to short, and the malfunction rattled Sabathia, who has relied on the brace to bolster his surgically repaired right knee since his last five starts of the 2015 season. “That was really weird,” Sabathia said. “It was scary.”
After he handed off the broken brace to the trainer, the rest of that inning was uncharted territory for Sabathia. He hadn’t thrown a pitch without it in almost two years. And of course the very next batter, Sam Travis, immediately tested him by slapping a grounder that pulled Chris Carter too far off first. Normally, Sabathia would have tried his best to cover. But this time, without the brace? No way. It wasn’t worth the risk.
“I wasn’t going over there,” Sabathia said, smiling.
Not that it mattered. Sabathia got a double play to erase Travis, had the brace fixed for the fifth, then retired 13 of the final 14 to win his fifth straight start, posting a 1.11 ERA during that streak. For all the confusion swirling around Tanaka, Sabathia was the perfect calming influence.