By Ernie Palladino
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Had this magical train ride stopped at the wild-card game, how Brian Cashman viewed CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka during the regular season probably wouldn’t have changed a bit.
In other words, he’d be shaking both their hands right now, thanking them for their service to the team, and bidding them both luck on their next stop. They would need a younger arm than the 37-year-old Sabathia and a more consistent one than the 28-year-old Tanaka had provided a still-developing team.
The money saved by not re-signing free agent CC and Tanaka, who may well opt out of his contract, could go toward procuring such talent.
The happy developments at Yankee Stadium the last three games have changed everything, however. Having left the gestational stage behind in the AL Division Series and now just one win in Houston away from the World Series, these Yanks will reflexively be regarded as postseason contenders for at least the next several years.
If they live up to such lofty billing, they’ll play big games. And for that, they’ll need big-game pitchers.
Sabathia and Tanaka have proven to be exactly that.
And that’s why any offseason plans to bid these two adieu need a makeover at this point.
Pay what he must, but Cashman needs both in the rotation.
Sabathia actually showed his worth during the regular season as the team’s steadiest starter next to Luis Severino. But the 14-5 record and 3.69 ERA he put up then paled in comparison to what he’s done in the postseason. He’s the one who got them to into the ALCS in the first place with a brilliant 4 1/3 innings of nine-strikeout work in Game 5 against the Indians before he ran into trouble.
Five days later, he came up with six huge innings of no-run, three-hit ball to win Game 3 against the Astros and begin the big dig out of the 0-2 hole they fell into in Houston.
He may well get a second call for Game 7 on Saturday if Justin Verlander pulls off another other-worldly start against Severino in Game 6. After all, who better than Sabathia, the stopper extraordinaire who has gone 10-0 this year after Yankees losses.
And if the lineup does to Verlander what it did to Dallas Keuchel on Wednesday, Sabathia will be headed to his second World Series since joining the Yanks prior to the championship season of 2009.
There’s a lot of big-game experience in that old body.
Tanaka is a thornier question, but just as pressing. An inconsistent regular season took a decided turn in his final start, when he tossed a career-high 15-strikeout affair against the Blue Jays.
Since then, he’s been on fire, and his 0.90 postseason ERA proves it.
His playoffs started with a pressure-filled Game 3 elimination against Cleveland. All he did was produce seven innings of three-hit brilliance in an eventual 1-0 win. Six strong innings followed in the opener of the ALCS, but Keuchel had 10 Yanks swinging at air. The Japanese right-hander took the 2-1 loss after giving up both runs in the fourth inning.
And then there was Wednesday’s gem, a seven-inning, three-hit job against Keuchel that put the Yanks up 3-2 in the series and sent them back to Houston with sky-high World Series hopes.
The rocky regular season seemed to dash Tanaka’s own hopes to exercise his opt-out clause for bigger bucks from the Bombers or someone else. But huge playoff performances tend to change those perceptions, so Cashman may well have to deal with a renegotiation.
It’s not like the Yanks haven’t experienced that before. Nor would it be the first time they ever ponied up. Alex Rodriguez famously (infamously?) opted out of the final three years of a 10-year, $250 million contract in 2007. The Yanks re-signed him to a new 10-year, record $275 million deal two months later.
Tanaka won’t cost nearly that much, assuming he decides to bail in the first place. But if he does, luring him back would represent a worthy investment.
The change in perceptions has created necessity. By advancing this far, the Yankees have shed the idea that they are still growing and developing.
Whether they reach the World Series or not, they have arrived well ahead of schedule. Many big games will be expected of them in the near future.
They’ll need seasoned, big-game pitchers to accomplish that.
Like Sabathia and Tanaka.
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