Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia stands on the mound during...

Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia stands on the mound during the second inning against the Indians in a game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Typically, the return of someone like CC Sabathia, a former Cy Young Award winner and potential Hall of Famer, is met with a mixture of relief and excitement. Especially for these rotation-challenged Yankees, who can use all the help they can get in the starter department.

But now, seeing Sabathia back on the mound Sunday in the Bronx, we’re not sure what to think, and probably a good portion of the 45,682 fans in attendance wondered, too.

Sabathia is an immensely popular player and has been a bona fide leader in this clubhouse since he first arrived for the 2009 season. The aura is real.

As for his current stature in the rotation, from a practical standpoint, that’s as tenuous as his wobbly right knee. Sabathia finally was able to take his turn again Sunday after three weeks on the injured list for more knee maintenance. But his performance came off as more of a rehab start as he lasted only three innings, leaving the Yankees in a 4-0 hole that eventually turned into an 8-4 loss to the Indians.

This series was billed as a possible playoff preview, so Sabathia’s 67-pitch cameo seemed somewhat out of place. And if this really was merely a chance for him to resume the build-up process, he has plenty left to prove between now and October, even if it’s difficult to envision Sabathia being part of the postseason calculus for the Yankees.

“I felt really good out there, and that’s all I can ask for,” he said. “If this is what it’s going to be the rest of the year, I can definitely deal with this.”

But can the Yankees? Sabathia surrendered all four of his runs during a 35-pitch second inning, which included a three-run homer by Mike Freeman, the No. 9 hitter in a very potent Indians lineup (and the replacement for the resting Jose Ramirez). Freeman swung and missed at Sabathia's first 80-mph slider, and when the lefthander tried the same pitch again, he sent it sailing into the Yankees’ bullpen.

That happens. But for Sabathia, it’s happening more frequently, as his pitches are getting barreled up — and hit much harder — than during any other point in his career.

Sabathia recently turned 39, and farewell tours don’t always have a storybook ending. In his last three starts, Sabathia has allowed 16 runs and seven homers in 11 1/3 innings. His ERA is up to 5.01.

As worrisome as that number may be, the one causing the greatest concern is eight — Sabathia’s own rating for the degree of knee pain he experiences on the mound. His two IL stints basically were designed to refresh his knee, through injections and rest. The first came on May 23 and lasted 10 days. Nearly two months later, Sabathia required this latest pit stop, but he took three weeks this time to get ready for Sunday’s return.

Sabathia opted for the IL when his pain scale jumped from the usual eight to an intolerable 10. Now he insists it’s back down to eight again — which to him is manageable.

“This is as good as it’s going to get,” he said.

The chronic condition, however, begs the question: How long will it remain good enough? And can Sabathia be an effective starter within that period? There are six weeks left in the regular season, and if Sabathia does survive them, is there any way that could qualify him for October?

When asked Sunday what the future might hold for Sabathia, even Aaron Boone wasn’t prepared to make any promises.

“We’ll see,” he said. “ Hopefully he can get into a good routine where his body is responding and bouncing back every fifth or sixth day and he can go on a good run with us. I saw enough today from his stuff when he was really locked in and I felt like it was pretty crisp at times. This is a step at building him back towards that full starter load.”

Sabathia was on a pitch count Sunday, and Boone expects that to increase to about 80 for his next start, which lines up to be against the mighty Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. The Yankees are loyal to Sabathia, but they don’t have any better options at the moment, either. They already were using an opener, and Luis Severino — who briefly faced hitters before Sunday’s game — probably is another three weeks away.

With a big cushion in the division and well positioned to earn the American League’s best record, the Yankees can afford to stick with Sabathia for now, to evaluate if he is truly recharged for the stretch run. There’s no need for hard decisions. Not yet, anyway.


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