TORONTO – When they were 3-6, a doomsday scenario was already being talked about in the Bronx. And when Masahiro Tanaka went down with a strained forearm, you had to wonder how long the New York Yankees would survive in the American League East.
But the division has been mediocre, much worse than anyone could have expected through the season’s first five weeks. And when Wednesday night began, the Yankees sat with the third-best record in the AL. Behind only the defending champion Kansas City Royals – which still seems weird to say – and the upstart Houston Astros.
The Yankees are pounding home runs, they’re playing just enough defense and they’re getting the kind of bullpen work that has you actually thinking there was no reason to fret the retirement of Mariano Rivera or the departure in free agency of David Robertson.
One of their big issues, however, remains their former ace.
It’s May and CC Sabathia still doesn’t have a win. It’s being spun every-which-way it can be spun, but 0-5 is 0-5. He’s the only five-game loser in the AL and his earned-run average is 5.45.
Sabathia turns 35 on July 21 and has a lot of mileage on that left arm and that big body. He had a few good moments and more uneven ones during Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in Rogers Centre.
Sabathia has made six starts and the Yankees are 1-5 in them, scoring just 13 runs. The lack of run support is a fair point to make about his record, but so is the Yankees’ 16-6 record when anybody else starts.
Sabathia’s velocity isn’t there. Neither is the location. His pitches were up all night, and it took 26 for him just to get out of the first inning. In 6∑ innings, Sabathia gave up four runs and nine hits.
You can say he gave his team some length. And you can also say it wasn’t nearly good enough. He knows it too, based on how glumly he looked while standing in front of his locker talking to the media after the game.
Sabathia’s signature analysis from the session: “I’m just good enough to lose right now.”
The sixth-inning solo home run Sabathia gave up to Russell Martin, his former catcher, is a case in point. A 2-0 pitch, a 90-mph fastball. If you get behind in the count and you no longer have the bite you once had, you can’t pitch to contact down the middle like that.
“He doesn’t have the same velocity he did before, but he’s still really pitching,” Martin said. “He still has a lot of weapons out there for you. We got to him a little bit but not a whole lot. ... If he executes pitches, odds are he’s going to get you out. If he makes mistakes, I might get him.”
Prior to the game and again afterward, manager Joe Girardi was saying the politically correct things. But he has to know too. Everyone around the Yankees knows. Sabathia is coming off major knee surgery that limited him to eight starts last season. He’s making his starts pain-free, but that’s about all.
“That he’s out there every fifth day has been the most encouraging thing,” Girardi said. “There was concern about his knee coming in. But we felt pretty good about it, knowing it was something we would have to manage.”
This is a pretty big challenge. Sabathia is the first Yankees pitcher to start 0-5 since Chien-Ming Wang started 0-6 in 2009. It would help if he would take care of business against the guys he should be getting out.
After the game, the YES Network pointed out that Sabathia is giving up a .387 average against hitters 6-7-8-9 in opposing lineups and just a .215 clip against Nos. 1-4. That’s pretty bizarre, and it was played out again Wednesday against a couple of very recent ex-Bisons.
Left fielder Chris Colabello, just named International League Player of the Month, went 3 for 3 against Sabathia, finished 4 for 4 and is 6 for 8 in two games since his recall. No. 9 hitter Ezequiel Carrera put the Jays up for good with a two-run single in the second. That wiped out the Yankees’ lone run in the first off Toronto’s Mark Buehrle, who snapped a 12-game losing streak against the Bronx Bombers that stretched back to 2004.
“I had a lead,” Sabathia said, discounting talk of his lack of run support. “My teammates gave me a lead and I have to do a better job against a No. 9 hitter. No disrespect to him, it’s the big leagues, but I have to get Carrera out in that situation.”
Alex Rodriguez doubled in the first but struck out twice and walked, sticking in a tie with Willie Mays at 660 home runs on the night “The Say Hey Kid” turned 84. Sabathia needs more from A-Rod, more from the entire lineup.
But he needs to find what’s missing in his own house too. The Yankees aren’t going to last a six-month tour in the AL East without him.