NEW YORK – The Cy Young award might have been lost on the final pitch, the 111th that CC Sabathia(notes) threw against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night. It was a ball. A walk. Another run. And Sabathia, seemingly so invincible just days earlier, was suddenly broken.
Then came the long walk to the dugout into the Yankee Stadium boos, his eyes shocked, his lips mumbling and the answers lost somewhere in the hail of line drives he left behind.
“I’m definitely disappointed,” he would say long after giving up seven runs in 5 1/3 innings and looking like anything but the pitcher who would take the New York Yankees back to the World Series.
Bad starts happen. This is part of baseball, of course. Even pitchers to whom the Cy Young is attached will occasionally get hit. But it is the way Sabathia was knocked from the game that startled him and suddenly created a doubt about the Yankees postseason. In the lexicon of baseball, he came “undone.”
He simply fell apart.
This isn’t like him. On his best nights he is usually dominant throughout. And for five innings he overwhelmed the Tampa Bay hitters. But then in the sixth something happened. He couldn’t throw strikes. His fastballs were pounded. His curves looped far out of the strike zone.
It led to the obvious questions. Is something wrong? Was he not feeling right?
Sabathia shook his head. No, he kept saying as he stood before his locker, his fastball felt great. His arm was strong. He felt wonderful.
No, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said at his postgame press conference, Sabathia just got into too many deep counts against the Rays in that dreadful sixth inning in which he was charged with six runs.
Still, this was the third start in his last six in which Sabathia has allowed at least five earned runs. He was brilliant just 10 days ago, giving up two hits in eight innings to these same Rays, yet he was not crisp in his next start against Baltimore and was dreadful in the sixth on Thursday night.
Does this mean anything? No one could tell. It is hard, sometimes to know when something is wrong with great pitchers. Perhaps it is easier for them to lapse into denial about the fastball that is suddenly too flat or the curve that won’t hit its intended spot.
Sabathia simply said: “I didn’t make pitches.”
But this is a problem for the Yankees. Their pitching, once the greatest advantage they held over the other top teams in the American League, has frayed. A.J. Burnett(notes) looks lost. Javier Vazquez(notes) has been banished to the bullpen from where he came late in the game to hit three Tampa Bay batters in a row. Phil Hughes(notes) is spotty and Andy Pettitte(notes) is just back after missing 57 games to a groin injury.
Sabathia was New York’s shining star. And if he isn’t right, the Yankees might be knocked quickly from the playoffs. Already they might have blown a great chance to take the American League East. Had they won on Thursday they would have been up 2½ games with only nine to play. Instead, they fell to just a half-game ahead of the Rays. All nine of their remaining games area against teams with winning records – including six with Boston. Tampa Bay’s 10 are all against last or next to last place teams.
The Yankees have not acted like they care much about winning the division, saying it is something they would like to do but not at the risk of health to their older players or at the expense of maintaining the same pitching rotation. It may be a foolish strategy, especially if they have to open a series at Minnesota with a shaky Sabathia and the 38-year-old Pettitte possibly hampered by leg problems.
If Sabathia is to start the first game of the ALDS, he will probably only get one more regular season start – a game next week at Toronto – to work out what might be wrong. If anything is wrong.
On Thursday he kept shaking his head, saying the Rays made him labor as the game went on. “They battle, definitely,” he said. “You got to work to get these guys out.” And like the White Sox and Orioles in the previous four weeks, the Tampa Bay players hit him hard, leaving everyone unsure what to think.
The only other time this season Sabathia had a similar stretch – two weeks in late May – he came back to dominate through June and July. So perhaps it’s nothing.
But with the division in jeopardy and so many questions looming before the playoffs, the fact that there was something to talk about regarding Sabathia sent a chill through Yankee Stadium that nobody here wanted to feel.