- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The history between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers was supposed to be too distant to remember, too ancient to count. Derek Jeter said he could not recall a single detail from the '90s, other than the most significant one.
The Yankees won all three series the teams played.
And yet under the Friday night lights in Texas, the Yanks and Rangers borrowed a game straight out of the '90s playbook -- pick a game, any game. They all run together, and they all end with grim-faced Rangers fans trudging out of this ballpark, wishing they had spent the night watching high school quarterbacks instead.
The Yankees did what the Yankees always do in the eighth inning, turning a 5-1 deficit into a 6-5 lead by jumping the Rangers' pitcher, C.J. Wilson, when he let down his guard just a bit. Brett Gardner hit a routine grounder to first, Wilson was a step slow covering the bag, and Gardner's head-first slide released the kind of biblical storm not seen in the playoffs since those midges came in off the lake three years back.
Jeter was Jeter, the Texas bullpen imploded on command, and Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano and Marcus Thames belted the Yankees to a 1-0 ALCS lead. But there was an ominous cloud hovering over the sunshiny visitors clubhouse.
Deep down, in a place they wouldn't open for public view, the Yankees know they won't win a championship if this is the best CC Sabathia has to give.
They know they won't seize Franchise title No. 28, the upgraded number on Joe Girardi's back.
Can they beat the Rangers with this CC? Yeah, probably.
But they're not beating Doc Halladay's Phillies with this CC, not even close.
"They've bailed me out twice," Sabathia said of his teammates.
Once against the Twins in the division series, once again right here.
"I just had no command," Sabathia said. "I couldn't execute the game plan because I couldn't throw the baseball over the plate."
Six batters into the game, Sabathia had already surrendered two walks, two line drives, a three-run homer to Josh Hamilton on an 0-2 pitch, and a 400-foot out to center.
If Sabathia didn't cover the plate on his would-be wild pitch to Matt Treanor with the bases loaded, and if Jorge Posada didn't replicate the famous Jeter flip he received in Oakland in 2001, the Yankees' ace would have set up his team for a disastrous fall.
As it was, Sabathia unleashed 36 pitches in the first and threw more balls in three innings (33) than his good bud, Cliff Lee, had thrown in nine Game 5 innings against Tampa Bay (30).
Sabathia was moved to apologize to his teammates, including Posada. "I'm sorry dude," CC told his catcher.
"That's OK," Posada responded. "We're going to pick you up."
The Yankees' offense was left with no choice.
"This was way worse than my start in Minnesota," said Sabathia, who allowed five runs on 93 pitches over four innings.
"He's human," pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
All too human for the time being.
Neither Eiland nor Girardi would rule out the possibility of Sabathia going on short rest in Game 4, and here's the thing:
The moment A.J. Burnett was announced as the Game 4 starter, millions of New Yorkers did exactly what Janet Leigh did when Hitchcock's shower curtain was ripped open and the knife was held high.
They screamed bloody murder.
Only to a Yankees fan already sweating the countdown to Lee's return to the Bronx, suddenly there is something more frightening than the thought of Burnett taking the Game 4 ball.
The thought of Sabathia taking the Game 4 ball.
"I'm just disappointed I haven't been able to do what I did for this team last postseason," Sabathia said.
CC meant everything to the Yankees last year, especially in the American League Championship Series victory over the Angels, when the left-hander went 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA. But Sabathia did not pitch any better Friday night than Burnett did Wednesday, when ol' A.J. simulated his 2010 season in ways his employers hadn't bargained for.
CC hadn't pitched since Oct. 6, so the long layoff was the most convenient available excuse for what went down in Game 1. "That was my biggest fear," Eiland said. "He's never had that much rest in his life."
Eiland called his pitcher "overly strong," and Sabathia agreed that the extra rest sure didn't help. Only it doesn't take a hardened, tobacco-stained scout to wonder if Sabathia was strong enough.
In the two years since they signed Sabathia to his landmark $161 million deal, the Yankees have squeezed every last drop of blood out of their investment. Counting the regular season and postseason, Sabathia has thrown 507.1 innings over 75 starts. In 2008, the Milwaukee Brewers tapped into CC's warrior spirit in 2008 and treated his left arm as if they had a lifetime warranty on it.
The Yankees figured they would pay for Sabathia's workload on the back end of his contract, when his likely breakdown would inspire them to spend another zillion bucks on another ace. Only sooner rather than later, this mountain of a man might crumble boulder by boulder, rock by rock.
The Yanks can't afford Sabathia to fall apart now. If he can't do any better than this, the Yanks might as well start Burnett in Game 4. Hell, they might as well pull Whitey Ford out of retirement.
The Phillies or even the Giants will be the ones winning it all.
The Yankees? Next spring, their manager will still be wearing No. 28 on his back.
8hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com