- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- The fact that CC Sabathia failed in his latest attempt to win his 20th game is not a big deal in and of itself.
With 23 games left in the regular season, the big fella will get at least four more chances to achieve the one goal that has eluded him throughout his stellar career. So no reason to panic about that.
The fact that the Tampa Bay Rays trounced the Boston Red Sox, 14-5, to pull within 1½ games of the New York Yankees in the AL East is no reason to start chewing your nails, either. If nothing else, it reinforces the knowledge that the division is a two-horse race and both horses will be running again in October.
Plus, the AL East is likely to be decided the way it should be, in the remaining seven head-to-head matchups between the Yankees and Rays over the final three weeks of the season.
So there's no real reason for scoreboard watching, either.
No, the real significance of Sabathia's pummeling at the hands of the lowly but rejuvenated Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium is simply this: It exposes the essential flaw in the defending world champions, and that is that this $200 million juggernaut will go only as far as their ace takes them.
It's been pointed out and proven time and again this season that of all the high-salaried, high-profiled and high achieving players on the Yankees' roster, the one who is never allowed to have a bad day is Sabathia.
They can win without Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez -- lately, they can hardly win with him -- and without Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher. (They can probably win without Robinson Cano, too, but since he never seems to get a day off, you can't really be sure.)
But, as manager Joe Girardi has repeated all season, the one constant in the Yankees' rotation, the one player who could absolutely be counted on every five days, was Sabathia.
Since June 3, he had been 15-2. Since July 2, 2009, he had been 16-0 with five no-decisions at Yankee Stadium. And dating back to Opening Day 2009, he had been 8-0 vs. the Orioles.
Just about any way you sliced it, Sabathia with a baseball in his hand was better than money in the bank. The big guy seemed never to need a bailout.
Tuesday night, Sabathia wasn't good and he wasn't really bad. What he was, was human, and that in itself was a shock to the system of everyone in the Yankees' clubhouse and just about everyone in Yankee Stadium (more than a few thousand Orioles fans seemed to have made the trip up I-95 for the game, because they were the only ones left at the end).
Flummoxed by a lineup that was jumping on his first-pitch fastballs and unable to get ahead in the count with his off-speed stuff, Sabathia fell behind 3-0 in the first inning on four singles and a walk, and 5-1 in the third after a bomb of a home run by Nolan Reimold.
"I tried to make adjustments, but I never could get my secondary stuff over for strikes," Sabathia (19-6) said. "And as good as we are, you can't expect these guys to come back after being down 5-1."
That was a hole the Yankees couldn't claw their way out of against Jake Arrieta, who had beaten them in his major league debut back in June and beat them even worse in September.
Now, the only thing that stands between the Yankees and their first four-game losing streak of the season -- not to mention their first three-game sweep at home by the Orioles since 1986 -- is the very green arm of right-handed Ivan Nova, who takes the ball Wednesday afternoon trying to ward off mass panic, if not disaster.
"We don't have much time to think about this one," said Jeter, who sounded glad about that fact. "We got to be back in a few hours to play them again. This one's over with and done with. We gotta have a short memory."
Certainly, this was one to forget. The Yankees managed eight hits, three by Lance Berkman, but the moment of truth came in the seventh inning when, trailing 6-2, they got two runners on for only the second time in the game, and failed to get either of them home.
Part of it was bad luck -- Alex Rodriguez, pinch hitting for Ramiro Pena, nailed a bullet off the glove of third baseman Josh Bell, but the ball caromed to shortstop Robert Andino, who fired to second base to complete an unconventional and devastating forceout.
And part of it was bad hitting. When Curtis Granderson, hitting before A-Rod, hit what should have been a routine pop out that was complicated -- but not eliminated -- when Andino dropped the ball in short center. Still, he recovered in time to get another unusual forceout at second, and on neither play could Berkman score from third.
"I don't fault our runners," Girardi said. "You have to be smart about it. Just some bad luck on our part."
The worst luck of all came when the pitcher who absolutely, positively does not and cannot lose did just that.
No pitcher is going to win every time out, but so far this year, Sabathia had given a pretty good effort at it. Five days ago, he threw eight innings of one-hit ball at the Oakland A's to win his 19th game of the season.
But Tuesday night, in his second career attempt to notch the elusive No. 20, Sabathia did pretty much what he had done last year in his final start of the season. That time, he got walloped by the Rays and ran out of season before he could take another crack at it.
This year, he will go again in five days against the Rays, and again five days after that in Baltimore. He will get his 20th victory as sure as he will eat a big breakfast tomorrow morning.
Truthfully, he may never lose again this year. That's how good he's been. Then again, he may run into what all mortals eventually run into every baseball season, and that is a losing streak. If so, it could not come at a worse time.
Because there are bigger worries with this Yankees rotation than Sabathia's final won-loss record, especially if they continue to falter down the stretch and wind up settling for the wild card. Then, instead of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they have to begin on the road, in a five-game series, in which it will be if not imperative, then at least extremely important, that CC Sabathia win two of those games.
Because, just as it has been in the regular season, there aren't too many starting pitchers the Yankees can trust after Sabathia.
Pettitte is making a rehab start Thursday night for AA Trenton, but will have, at most, three starts under his belt before the postseason begins. Burnett showed progress but still lost to the Orioles on Monday. Phil Hughes has struggled of late, the bloom came off Nova's rose a bit in his last outing and if Vazquez is in the postseason rotation, it means something has gone very wrong.
That makes it not just important, but vital that Sabathia be not just good, but super.
"I didn't think he threw terrible," Girardi said. "Just not as good as we've become used to seeing."
The Yankees have become more than used to seeing the brilliance of CC Sabathia every five days. They've become addicted to it.
And without it, they could be in for a whole lot of pain.
GAME NOTES: Once again, the Yankees' bullpen was lights out, Kerry Wood (two batters, two Ks) and Chad Gaudin combining for for 2⅔ hitless innings. ... Berkman is 8-for-16 since returning from the DL on Sept. 1. ... Today's shocking A-Rod stat -- with his bizarre seventh-inning forceout, he remains hitless in 11 career pinch-hitting appearances. ... Wood's ERA is 0.54 -- 1 ER in 16 2/3 IP -- since being acquired from Cleveland at the trading deadline. ... Nova (1-0, 2.89), coming off a 4⅔-inning, three-ER outing against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, faces RHP Brad Bergesen (6-10, 5.47), in the Yankees' sixth day game of their past seven. First pitch, 1:05 p.m. ET.
7hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com