Yankees holding tight, counting on Sabathia

It took Brian Cashman days — not weeks — to realize the
Yankees would never be players in the Roy Halladay courtship, not
after the effort it took to acquire a second-tier talent like Eric Hinske.

“That was a small deal, and it turned into a big deal,” is
what the general manager said, explaining how Halladay became a pipe
dream. Cashman isn’t alone in his weariness: the trade market is more
delicately wired than ever. Everyone’s afraid to move bodies, exchange
money, blow out a budget in an environment where there are no second
chances.

In the end, the Yankees backed away from Halladay for two reasons:
They weren’t eager to add payroll, and, perhaps more importantly,
they’re comfortable with CC Sabathia as their ace.

The big lefthander has so far delivered on the preseason hype: he’s
larger than life, if not slightly larger than his uniform. Sabathia
has won three of his last four starts, and leads the Yankees with 10
victories.

He wasn’t at his best in defeating the A’s Thursday night, allowing
three runs and nine hits over seven innings. But he kept the Yankees’ winning
streak alive at seven games, good enough for the Bombers to maintain a 2.5-
game lead over the Red Sox.

Cashman says, “I like where we are, obviously” although it goes
without saying the Bombers’ residence in first place carries an
asterisk. They’re 0-8 against the Sox this season and will need to
beat them sooner or later, if only for their psychological well-being.

Make no mistake, the Yankees having been living with Boston’s
dominance since they were swept at Fenway in June. Cashman insists,
“the Red Sox are not in our heads” but how could they not be? The chance
for redemption is almost here, as Boston comes to the Stadium in two
weeks for a crucial four-game series.

That’s where Sabathia comes in: the Yankees need him not just to
merely pitch well, but to deliver an emphatic message. They need
someone to match up with and beat Josh Beckett, and every other
American League ace.

That person is not A.J. Burnett — who has killer stuff, but is
notoriously inconsistent.

It’s not Joba Chamberlain — he’s yet to make a satisfying transition
as the No. 3 starter.

It’s not Andy Pettitte — his best years are clearly behind him.

It’s Sabathia who can most effectively change the Yankees’ profile.
It’s the reason the Yankees wrote him a $161 million check. Cashman
said, “We got him to anchor the front of the rotation, give us innings
and be our top dog. So far, he’s done that.”

Sabathia proved his worth in out-pitching Justin Verlander a week ago,
beating the Tigers’ right-hander on a day when Mark Teixeira said,
“that was the best I’d ever seen (Verlander) in his career.”

Maybe it was coincidence that Sabathia was so good (seven shutout
innings, five hits) on a day he was matched up against another team’s
ace. But history says this is the time of the year when Sabathia
dominates.

As the temperature peaks in mid-summer — when Sabathia says, “I get
really loose” — he becomes almost unhittable. He was at 97-mph against
Detroit, which makes the Yankees breathe heavily at what might be next.

Sabathia is a career 28-9 with a 3.21 ERA in August, with an even
better ERA (2.77) in September. If the race in the East is close, and
there’s every reason to believe it will be, the Yankees will only be
as successful as Sabathia down the stretch.

No wonder why he pitches so deep into games, going seven innings or
more in 15 of his 21 starts. Joe Girardi says, “he’s a big, strong
guy” whom the Yankees believes can handle the workload.

Can he really? Sabathia is second in the American League in the number
of pitches he’s thrown — 2,210 — after having led the majors in 2008 in
the same category.

Sabathia says there’s no cause for concern, but Cashman speaks more
candidly about the subject.

“You definitely worry about the workload,” he said. “You worry about
all aspects (of signing a free agent) but eventually you have to trust
your evaluation, your instincts, your gut and take a chance. With the
type of competitor CC is and the ability he’s shown, he was definitely
worth taking a chance on.”

The gamble has conditionally paid off; Sabathia still has
to beat the Red Sox for a full return on the Yankees’ investment. But,
for the most part, Cashman is pleased with how his team has performed.

“We have a great club,” the GM flatly says. Although, with two months
remaining and the Yankees’ eight-year championship drought, any such
proclamation needs to be qualified.

“Are we the best team out there? That remains to be seen,” Cashman
said. “We could find something better (via trades), but financially
and in terms of prospects, that’s really tough to do.”

That means the Yankees will almost certainly pass on a major trade in
the next week, an itch that won’t be scratched as long they’re ahead
of the Red Sox. But there’s unfinished business in the AL East.

With seven games against the Red Sox next month, the Bombers are
counting on Sabathia to be more than just The Man. Starting now, he is
officially The One.