By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

CC Sabathia is going south, to Tampa, that is. That’s good news for the Yanks because the trip represents a major step forward in getting off the DL.

The sooner he returns to the real action, the more normal Joe Girardi’s rotation will begin to look, and the faster he can replace one of the shakier pieces of its current incarnation.

Not that Vidal Nuno is a bad pitcher. It’s just that he’s not the kind of lefty that will sustain the kind of streaks the Yanks need over the long run to reach the playoffs. He started off well enough when CC originally went down, allowing a single run over 6 1/3 innings against the Angels on May 7.

Since then, however, it’s been a bag of mixed results, mostly bad. Oh, there was the seven-inning outing against the White Sox on April 24, a no-decision where he gave up three runs. And he didn’t acquit himself terribly in his next start, a 6 2/3-inning, four-run loss to the Twins. But his performance fell off after that, and he’s currently on an 0-3 run with a 6.87 ERA. The three homers he allowed Saturday in a 6-1 loss to the Orioles only underscored the importance of getting Sabathia, as well as Michael Pineda, back into the rotation.

The homers put Nuno’s total at 15 for the year, encompassing 67 1/3 innings. That’s a homer every 4.5 innings, which is not the way to win over the long run. Sabathia gives up the long ball every so often, 38 over the last two years including 10 this year, but we all know he’s been struggling with health issues. If he gets back healthy, one can assume he’ll fall back to pre-2012 form where 20 homers allowed over 34 starts was considered a generous total.

Problem is, Sabathia won’t be ready for a while. Throwing pain-free during a 36-pitch bullpen session Saturday marked a good start, but it’s just a start in his comeback from a degenerative knee condition. He may need as many as five minor-league rehab starts before he’s deemed fit for a return.

That could bring him deep into July. A season and a divisional race can get awfully late awfully early at that point, especially if Masahiro Tanaka falls back to earth from that other-worldly orbit he’s in right now.

Even in Sunday’s 8-0 loss to the Orioles, Tanaka had allowed just one run through six before the O’s scored two off him in the seventh on a groundout and a sac fly. Tanaka took his second loss of the season, but by no means should anyone worry about him — yet.

That doesn’t lessen the urgency of getting Sabathia back. Even he knows that.

“I’m trying to go as fast as possible,” Sabathia told the media after his pain-free session. “Hopefully, it’s not five (rehab) starts.”

Fans should only hope the cortisone and stem cell therapy he received in May has taken hold permanently. Their positioning right now, 1 ½ games behind AL East leader Toronto, is advantageous. But things can change.

Still, Nuno is really the only sore spot right now. Chase Whitley has done the job well, and David Phelps has been solid. A trade could bring a Jason Hammel or Ian Kennedy, or even a Jeff Samardzija if the package is big enough. That would solve the problem right there.

Until that happens, though, the Yanks will have to stick with Nuno, a shaky proposition at best.

The rotation needs a healthy, productive Sabathia. And he’s doing his part by taking it day by day, one step at a time.

The Yanks must hope that the days don’t add up to too many, and the steps are not too much for that degenerative right knee.

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