BALTIMORE -- In CC Sabathia's relatively short tenure as a Yankee, we have seen him do many exemplary, even amazing things. Last year, in his first season pitching under the twin pressures of New York City and the richest contract ever given to a pitcher, he responded with 19 regular-season wins plus two over the Los Angeles Angels that earned him the ALCS MVP award.
This year, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in his second start, and in a season in which the pitching staff has been as shaky as a blade of grass in a windstorm, he has been the one guy the Yankees know they can depend on to give them a high-quality effort every time out.
But the ultimate tribute of how good Sabathia really is came out of the mouth of teammate Derek Jeter just minutes after the Yankees finished beating the Orioles, 11-3, at Camden Yards to nail down Sabathia's 20th victory of the season.
"I didn't even know it was his first time until after the game," Jeter said. "I just assumed he had done it before."
And why not? In his 10 big league seasons, Sabathia seems to have done everything a pitcher can do. Certainly, he has done just about everything else -- he was a Cy Young Award winner in 2007, a World Series champion in 2009 and is the undisputed ace of the Yankees' rotation.
Saturday night, he was what he nearly always is -- unspectacularly efficient and effectively unhittable. He has pitched better games this season and not won -- witness five days ago, when he locked up in a pitcher's duel with David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays, threw eight innings of two-hit shutout ball, and came away with a no-decision because Price, one of his chief rivals for the 2010 Cy, matched him pitch for pitch and inning for inning. And according to Sabathia, he has had better seasons and not come away with 20 wins, most notably 2007, when he went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA for the Cleveland Indians.
"I think I was more consistently good that year," he said. And yet, the marriage of Sabathia and the Yankees has been a near-perfect union, a pitcher who almost always keeps his team in the game and a team that nearly always provides its pitcher with a healthy cushion. This year, the Yankees have staked Sabathia to more than six runs per game, and in turn, he has helped them to win 22 of his 32 starts. When Sabathia is on the mound, there is none of the nail-biting or head-scratching or teeth-gnashing that accompanies a performance by A.J. Burnett, for example, or lately, Phil Hughes. There is merely the comforting thought that as long as the Yankees' hitters do their job, Sabathia will do his.
Still, the fact that it took this long for Sabathia to reach the yardstick by which great pitchers used to be judged -- this had been his third 19-win season, his third attempt this year at No. 20 and fourth attempt overall, having been blown out in his final start by the Rays last October -- is not so much a reflection on Sabathia but on the mark itself, which due to the proliferation of the five-man rotation and the overall unreliability of relief pitching has, unlike the home run, become not much easier to accomplish but many times harder.
And as usual, it was Sabathia's teammates who seemed a lot more impressed with him than he was with himself.
"I feel good for him, because winning 20 games is not something that is easily done," Jeter said. "A lot of things have to go right. You have to pitch well, the team has to score runs, if you have a lead you gotta hold the lead. So yeah, I'm excited for him."
"It's huge," said Nick Swisher, who returned to the lineup Saturday night with two hits including an RBI double. "Not one pitcher in the majors won 20 games last year. He's had such a great career. We wanted to come out tonight and get him that win that he so very much deserves."
Sabathia, for his part, admitted to feeling "good" about the victory but spoke, as he always does, about the importance of team goals first.
"Maybe after the season I'll think more about it, but right now we're right in the middle of this thing, trying to win a championship, trying to win the division first," he said. "Maybe after the season I can sit back and enjoy it a little more but right now I'm just looking five days ahead to get us another win."
He spoke of the defensive brilliance of Robinson Cano, who nipped a potential first-inning threat in the bud by making a sparkling play on Brian Roberts' grounder on the shortstop side of second base to start the Orioles' first inning.
He spoke of the offense, which has fed him extravagantly all season and gave him a 3-0 lead Saturday, then bailed him out after he allowed a home run by Robert Andino to cut the lead to 3-2 in the third. Cano's 28th home run of the season, a two-run shot that pushed his RBI total to 101, began an onslaught of Yankees scoring capped by Curtis Granderson's three-run bomb in the top of the ninth.
"We tacked on and kept on tacking," manager Joe Girardi said.
The win kept the Yankees a half-game ahead of Tampa Bay, which beat the Angels, and gave the Yankees a chance to end what had been a disastrous road trip on a high note with Andy Pettitte returning after two months on the disabled list for Sunday afternoon's finale.
"Tomorrow's a good day because Andy's coming back," Girardi said. "And today was a good day because CC won his 20th. That's quite an accomplishment. I'm sure it's meaningful to CC and as he gets older, I'm sure he'll appreciate it even more."
Just when you thought CC Sabathia had shown you everything, he reaches back and pulls out something more.
GAME NOTES: Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie's first pitch of the game plunked Jeter on the left elbow, the 10th time he has hit a Yankee in his seven major league seasons. "And that doesn't count the ones in spring training," an irritated Girardi said. "That's too many." He stopped short, though, of accusing Guthrie of throwing at his players. "That's something you'd have to ask him," Girardi said. "I know he has to pitch inside, but that's just too many." Jeter, who was unhurt, said, "Well, I haven't been counting, but I don't think he did it on purpose. I don't know why he would. He's what you would call effectively wild." ... Cano's 100th RBI gave the Yankees three infielders with more than 100 RBIs (Alex Rodriguez, 111, Mark Teixeira, 101) in the same season for the first time in their history. ... Teixeira, held out of the game to allow some relief from the pain of a broken right pinkie toe and a bone bruise on his right thumb, is not a lock to play Sunday either. "I'll talk to him and make my decision tomorrow," Girardi said. ... Camden Yards was sold out -- 48,775 -- for only the second time all season. Friday night's game drew a healthy 32,874. Thursday night, when the O's hosted the Blue Jays, the crowd was 13,651. ... Sunday's matchup: Pettitte (11-2, 2.88) vs. RHP Chris Tillman (1-4, 6.32). First pitch, 1:37 p.m.