Rewind just over a month. The New York Yankees had a comfortable 10-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the American League East and seemed well on their way to an 18th division title.
August has been a different story, however. Twenty straight game-days and some injuries to the pitching staff contributed to a disappointing stretch for the pinstripes. That once 10-game division lead was diminished to just 2.5 after being swept by the Chicago White Sox early last week.
But CC Sabathia on Friday did his best to push New York back in a winning direction. The 32-year-old starter returned to the lineup Friday after spending two weeks on the disabled list and appeared to be in fine form, pitching 7 1/3 innings of one-hit ball and striking out nine in a 3-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians.
His toughest test of the night came in the bottom of the sixth, with runners on the corners, one out and the game tied at 1-1. Sabathia responded to the pressure and pitched himself out of the jam, striking out back-to-back batters in Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta.
His back-to-back strikeouts to end the sixth appeared to be the game's turning point as Derek Jeter then led off the seventh inning with a base hit, followed by a two-run home run from Nick Swisher to put New York up 3-1.
''He really knows how to pitch,'' manager Joe Girardi said after the game. ''I was pleasantly surprised how solid his command was. You don't throw for 15 days, you don't always get that.''
A healthy and productive Sabathia, however, won't be enough to carry the Yankees through September and into the playoffs unless his strong return to the lineup can invigorate some of the other starters in New York's rotation who have struggled this season.
That list includes Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. Hughes has given up the second-most home runs in the American League this season, and Nova (who has given up the third most HRs in the AL) had won just once in his last eight starts prior to being put on the 15-day DL last week.
Pitching could be the difference between the Yanks maintaining a cushion in the AL East and a late-season division title race.
It was an impressive week on the mound for San Francisco Giants reliever Javier Lopez.
The 35-year-old left-hander closed out three Giants victories without giving up a single hit on a combined 2 1/3 innings of work.
Though he'll rarely see the mound for more than an out or two because of his poor numbers against right-handed batters, his strength against left-handed hitters has proved to work perfectly with the closing-by-committee system implemented by Giants manager Bruce Bochy.
On Friday, Lopez picked up the first four-out save of his career in a 5-3 win over Atlanta.