Commentary

Sabathia heating up in June once again

The Yankees' ace beat the Phillies' ace Tuesday, which is a sign of good things to come

Updated: June 16, 2010, 1:30 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- If the past couple of seasons are any indication, CC Time is about to get under way.

Last year, in his first season as a New York Yankee, CC Sabathia's record on June 16 sat at 6-4, his ERA at 3.67. He finished up at 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA and wound up as the MVP of the ALCS, holding the Los Angeles Angels to a stingy two runs in 16 innings pitched over two games.

[+] EnlargeC.C. Sabathia
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSabathia couldn't help but smile while beating the Phillies on Tuesday.

Two years ago, in his final season as a Cleveland Indian/Milwaukee Brewer, Sabathia was 5-8 on June 16, his ERA a bloated 4.26. By the time the story of that season was written, he had finished up 17-10, his ERA plunging to 2.70. OK, so his NL ERA was a lot skinnier than his AL ERA -- as a Brewer he went 11-2 with a 1.85 in a league without the DH -- but the numbers are the numbers.

Over the past two seasons, Sabathia is a sub-.500 pitcher before June 16 (11-12) and a Cy Young pitcher thereafter (25-6).

Yankees fans can only hope that Tuesday night at the Stadium is the start of Sabathia's annual second-half surge, his workmanlike seven-inning stint in the Yankees' 8-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies the first of many more to come between now and October.

"I think it's getting a lot better,'' said Sabathia, whose record improved to 7-3 even if his ERA took only the slightest of drops, from 4.01 to an even 4.00. "My bullpen sessions have been a lot better and I feel like I have better command of my pitches.''

The secret? "Just stand taller, stand back on the rubber and make sure all of my pitches are coming from the same arm slot.''

Asking the 6-foot-7 Sabathia to stand taller, of course, is like asking Megan Fox to be prettier. It's hard for them to do otherwise.

But whatever Sabathia is doing -- and in the absence of pitching coach Dave Eiland, no less -- it seems to be working, even if in small increments.

A week ago, it was seven innings of two-run ball against the Baltimore Orioles, the patsy in four of Sabathia's seven wins this year. Tuesday night, it was a bona fide major-league ballclub, albeit of the NL variety, the team that took the Yankees to Game 6 of the 2009 World Series, a team Sabathia could not beat last October or, for that matter, in November (he got a no-decision in Game 4 on Nov. 1).

"It feels good to get a win over a good team,'' said Sabathia, who did not mean that as ungraciously as it may have sounded.

It's just that so far this season, with the exception of a glorious performance against the Tampa Bay Rays the first week of the season, when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and a seven-inning, one-run performance against the Boston Red Sox here in May, Sabathia has been, well, just OK.

And although this was his third straight victory, it was also his first win over a team other than the hapless Orioles since he beat the Texas Rangers on April 16.

"I think I got off to a pretty good start this year,'' he said. "I had a bad May, a little bumpy, but overall I feel like I'm ahead of where I've been the last couple of years.''

At best, he is about even. But if past is prologue, and it generally is in baseball, then the remainder of the season should be trouble for the rest of baseball.

In a game billed as a matchup of aces, neither Sabathia nor Phillies starter Roy Halladay truly lived up to the hype, although Sabathia started strongly, striking out six of the first 10 batters he faced.

But the second time through the order, things got a little rocky for Sabathia and the Yankees. After having taken a five-run lead against a subpar Halladay on a two-run triple by Brett Gardner and home runs by Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, Sabathia began giving back the lead in the fourth inning.

It started off innocently enough, when Chase Utley's comebacker glanced off Sabathia's meat hand and dribbled to shortstop for an infield hit. Then Sabathia broke Placido Polanco's bat with a fastball, only to see the ball whiz by him into center field for a single. A 1-2 fastball ran in on Ryan Howard, catching the big fella on the triceps, and suddenly the Phillies had the bases loaded and no one out.

"The first three innings he was as sharp as we've seen him all year, and then he gets hit in the hand and I always wonder how that affects a guy,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "I can tell him and tell him again, 'Keep your big mitts out of the way,' but it's instinctual and you wonder if that had something to do with it.''

Sabathia said it did not, but Jayson Werth jumped on his next pitch, a changeup, to single in a run, and Raul Ibanez fought off a pair of two-strike pitches to single in another. Then Ben Francisco whacked a perfect inning-ending double-play ball right at Mark Teixeira, but when Derek Jeter went to make the relay throw, there was no one covering first base.

For some reason, Sabathia remained anchored in place a few steps off the mound, and never broke for the base. "That was all my fault,'' he said. "A total mental lapse. Just one of those things.''

That scored the Phillies' third run, and for a moment it appeared we might be back to the pitchers duel everyone had come to see. But Sabathia settled in to wriggle out of a fifth-inning bases-loaded jam by inducing Ibanez to bounce out to second, and Halladay, given a second chance to keep his team in the game, allowed a home run to Teixeira in the fifth.

Meanwhile, Sabathia set down the next six batters, although without another strikeout. "I just told him to be aggressive with his fastball, make these guys hit the ball, and that's what he did,'' catcher Francisco Cervelli said.

David Robertson and Chan Ho Park came on to clean up the eighth and ninth, and the Yankees had a relatively easy victory over a tough team that has suddenly run into some rough times. Over the past month, the Phillies have gone 6-15 to go from 4 1/2 games in front in the NL East to third place, 3 1/2 games back.

"I don't know why we are not hitting as well as we can,'' Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We were a hit away from crawling back into the game.''

He did not mention Sabathia's role in not allowing that hit, but maybe he didn't have to. CC Time is just getting started, and if the past performances hold up, there'll be plenty of time for that between now and October.

GAME NOTES: Girardi said Alex Rodriguez, out for the fourth straight game with what the club is calling a strained hip flexor but which Rodriguez insists is a groin injury, will be a game-time decision for Wednesday night's game against the Phillies. … With his home run, Granderson's lifetime batting average against Halladay is now .375 (6-for-16) with two home runs. … Cervelli had another clutch hit with his two-run single off reliever David Herndon in the seventh. He is now hitting .447 (17-for-38) with runners in scoring position and .750 (6-for-8) with the bases loaded. … Wednesday's matchup: RHP A.J. Burnett (6-4, 3.86) vs. LHP Jamie Moyer (6-6, 5.03).

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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