By Jason Keidel
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As CC Sabathia labored through the first few innings on Thursday night, his pitch count climbing, there was a sense of foreboding, a red cloud hovering over the Bronx.
It felt like it was just a matter of moments before Boston’s nuclear bats would get to the gritty lefty. It was four hours from September, before the pitcher would turn into a pumpkin, with 40 pitches off his damp brow after just two innings. He’s an old man, not a thin man, and he was doing his geriatric best to keep the Yankees in the game. It seemed they were destined to blow another valiant effort by their former ace.
But in a season of surprises from the 37-year-old southpaw, he sweated and gutted out yet another game.
Perhaps it’s hard to call a former ace and a man who is making $25 million this season a revelation. But if we can ignore certain historical and monetary landmarks, Sabathia has been a marvel. And even in this sunset of a season he’s swathed in impressive numbers.
The Yankees are 15-7 in games Sabathia has started. Sabathia hasn’t surrendered more than two runs in any of his last three starts. In fact, he hasn’t surrendered more than two runs in 11 of his last 15 outings.
And perhaps the most glittering stat of all speaks to how hard his pitching hide really is. Sabathia (11-5, 3.71 ERA) entered Thursday’s game 7-0 with a 1.44 ERA following a Yankees loss.
Make it 8-0.
Just as the Yanks have defied convention and projection this year, so has Sabathia, who kept the Bombers in the opener of this pivotal series long enough to go long on Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez. And in the year of the long ball, where an obscene 42.6 percent of MLB runs have come by way of the homer, Gary Sanchez swatted one over the right-field fence. Even one the club’s bigger disappointments, Greg Bird, got into it with a blast and three RBIs.
And did the Bombers ever need it. After being swept off River Avenue by the Cleveland Indians, three brutal losses, along with dropping a series in Boston two weeks ago, the Yanks could not have lost Thursday’s game and kept their dream bubble of a division title. Even their wild card lead has shunk to the point of peril, as they are now looking back at eight teams pining for their spot. And 24 of the Yanks’ final 30 games are against those teams.
Sure, the Yanks have been sluggish at best since their smoking start to the season. But it’s not by dint of indifference. They just aren’t quite ready. You couldn’t possibly expect Aaron Judge to hit another 35 homers, or maintain his .330 average, after the All-Star Game. You couldn’t expect the entire club to play past the back of their baseball cards, even if it felt you could.
But if you want to indulge the idea that the Yankees (71-62) are perfectly lined up to make something of this series, and this season, they have Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, and Luis Severino taking the mound over their next three games against their 21st Century tormentors.
Sure, Thursday was just one game, and the Bombers have blown myriad chances to topple the Sox. And it’s likely they are a year away away from assuming their ancestral perch atop the AL East. But they are just 4 1/2 games behind Boston with three more to play this weekend. If — yes, a monstrous if — the Yanks sweep the Sox, they will be just an eyelash from the top spot.
Either way, games like what we saw Thursday are why you fell in love with the Yanks all over again. Gone is the laundry list of A-list free agents, mercenaries, and divas who were neither drafted nor developed by the team, who swear God told them 161st Street was their true home seven years into their careers. It’s funny how their deity always approves the team and town that cuts the biggest check.
And in a season of young faces assuming the helm and asserting their places as faces of the franchise, it took an old man to show them how it’s done. Maybe Sabathia can’t throw 97 mph anymore. Maybe he can’t carry a club into October. Maybe he’s not worth $25 million a season anymore. But his performance Thursday night, and this season, considering what he’s been through the last two years, was priceless.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel