TAMPA, Fla. – The thing about being 35 years old and a touch overweight and lugging a knee brace and carrying a 4.81 ERA over one's past few seasons, it's easy for a crummy half hour in March to make one appear to be in slightly over one's head.
It can get muggy on an overcast Sunday afternoon here, so the sweat comes in kegs, and the sideways cap leaves jaunty for haggard, and none of this is helped by the fact one is in danger of running oneself into the ground backing up all those bases.
So CC Sabathia, assigned 45 pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies in his second spring appearance, turned those into five outs and one very contemplative slog from the mound at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Too many imprecise pitches to too many Phillies, Sabathia said, which can happen in mid-March and have no significance other than it being mid-March.
Sabathia maybe knows better, him being that age and dragging that recent history, or at least enough to know it can't go like this for the next three weeks and have nobody notice.
"It is what it is," he said a couple times later Sunday afternoon, which is true until it isn't anymore, and maybe that's soon and maybe it's not.
The New York Yankees try not to be in the business of giving out ceremonial positions, even to the men to whom they owe tens of millions of dollars. Which is not to say they don't play – or haven't played – plenty of men whose salaries demand a place on their roster. They'd probably prefer not to, is all. As of today, their starting rotation goes Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi and, probably, must be, almost has to be, Sabathia. Right?
"I think so, yeah," Sabathia said. "I think I can compete in this game. I think I can get guys out, yeah."
Well, it was sort of interesting on Sunday afternoon, in the midst of never really getting a feel for his slider or his changeup, that Sabathia's journey back – personally, professionally – twice went through Ryan Howard.
In the matter of Howard, the thing about being 36 years old and a touch husky and having hit .226 over two seasons and precisely .130 against lefties in the last one, one does fight the same daily battles of perception and reality and fantasy that Sabathia does. It does, presumably, scald one's soul to be so exceptionally vulnerable in a place – be it a pitcher's mound or a batter's box – that earned one every bit of that $25 million, what Sabathia and Howard each will pocket in 2016.
Sabathia may indeed be pitching for a place in the Yankees' rotation, against Ivan Nova. Said Yankees manager Joe Girardi: "We're going to take what we feel is the five best. Bottom line."
Howard is playing for regular at-bats against left-handers, at the very least. He's begun with four hits in 18 at-bats against all comers, which, of course, can happen in mid-March and be excused as being in mid-March, except it's hard to ignore a trend that won't quit.
What they're both really after is their former selves. That or acceptance from others that this is all quite natural, given the age and the miles, so maybe everybody should chill and give them some space and let them get their Marches on. After all, Howard did hit 20 home runs in 367 at-bats against right-handers last season, which is plenty capable. And Sabathia did pull himself together to post a 2.86 ERA over his final nine starts last season, the last of which preceded an effort to take his life back in rehab.
But this is today, and it won't be long until tomorrow counts, and the game seems a little short anymore on benefit of the doubt, deserved or otherwise. Hell, somebody gave up on somebody else once in order for Sabathia and Howard to take their places, way back when Sabathia was, say, winning 17 games as a rookie or Howard was, say, slugging 58 homers in his second season. And so here they were on a Sunday afternoon at the corner of Steinbrenner Drive and whatever's next.
In the first inning, working off a two-ball count against Howard, Sabathia threw a fastball middle-away and Howard jerked that down the right-field line for a double. Allowing a line drive, run-scoring double to a guy who hit .130 against left-handers would not be the worst of Sabathia's day. He botched a comebacker that basically died at his feet, whiffing it once with his glove and again with his bare hand. He gave up four other hits. He threw a wild pitch.
And in the second inning, Sabathia hit Howard with a 3-and-2 fastball. It was his 48th pitch, and last. After he'd handed the baseball to Girardi, Sabathia lowered his head and started to the dugout, lifting his head briefly to ask Howard if he was OK.
"I know him pretty good," Sabathia said. "You definitely root for him. I've been competing against him for a long time."
Sometimes, you know, one knows what another man is going through. Sometimes there's no avoiding it. The fight may not be exactly the same, but it's close enough.
"Yeah," Sabathia said, "I'm kind of in the same spot."
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