The Yankees' pitching rotation, long held together with Silly Putty and baling wire, turned Wednesday night to a new device: a big brace for a big man's knee.
The wearer, CC Sabathia, once appeared to be an afterthought for the season's home stretch. But now, in the post-Nathan Eovaldi Era, he appears to matter very much as the Yanks continue to mix and match pitchers.
So all eyes were on the fading former ace when he returned from the disabled list and pitched for the first time since leaving an Aug. 23 game with right knee inflammation.
How did it go? Not well enough to erase all doubts, but well enough for some cautious optimism that he can win a game or two as the Yankees try to eke out a division title.
Sabathia did not figure in the decision in a dispiriting 5-3 loss to the Orioles, leaving with two outs in the fourth after 85 pitches, one earned run, five strikeouts, four hits, three walks and one costly hit-by-pitch.
He consistently threw in the low 90s, seemed to mix pitches and locations effectively and did not appear to be bothered either by the brace or the balky knee it was protecting.
After the game Sabathia lamented not throwing strikes consistently enough but mostly was pleased with how he did and how his knee held up.
"I was a little nervous at first just not being out there for a long time, but after I just trusted the brace and the work we've been doing I felt pretty good out there," he said.
Later he added, "It feels good. I'll work tomorrow and be ready to go whenever I get the ball again . . . My knee feels fine. I'm excited."
Sabathia allowed a run in the first that was earned, but only on a technicality. Stephen Drew bobbled what should have been a double-play ball that might have prevented the Orioles from later scoring.
The second inning was 1-2-3, but this time Sabathia needed help. Dustin Ackley leaped at the wall in leftfield to rob Steve Pearce.
In the fifth he struck out Manny Machado for the second out with runners on second and third, leaving Machado nodding at him in tribute.
But he then plunked Chris Davis on a 1-and-2 pitch to load the bases, after which manager Joe Girardi removed him. Sabathia clearly was angry.
"I had two strikes right there and if I just make a pitch I've got him out," he said. "Just frustrating that I couldn't finish that inning . . . Anywhere but hitting him would have been a good pitch."
Reliever Adam Warren induced a hard ground ball from Jonathan Schoop to third baseman Chase Headley. Headley's low-but-catchable throw eluded Drew at second base for an error that allowed two runners to score and tied the score at 3.
Girardi had said before the game he would let Sabathia dictate whether he would "cut loose" without fear. Sabathia said that is precisely what he did.
"When you get into a game you have to let it fly, especially at this time [of year]," he said.
Before the game, Girardi said he could see Sabathia giving the Yankees 80-90 pitches. That proved to be a good guesstimate.
"I thought after the first couple of hitters he got the ball down in the zone," the manager said. "I thought his breaking ball was sharp. I thought his changeup was good. I thought his stuff overall was pretty good."
The big series against the Blue Jays this weekend will be contested without him, but Sabathia now knows he will be called upon again. See you next week, CC!