Yankees ace makes first spring start

CC Sabathia’s first start of the year came and went without incident Friday afternoon at George M. Steinbrenner Field — and that’s exactly what the New York Yankees’ southpaw ace had in mind when he took the bump for his latest spring training debut.

In his first game action since October surgery to remove bothersome bone spurs from his pitching elbow, Sabathia threw 64 pitches over five innings against the visiting Miami Marlins, giving up two runs on eight hits. He struck out two and walked one, getting the no-decision in a 7-3 Yankees win.

Sabathia wasn’t particularly overpowering for a guy who enters the season with the second-most strikeouts of any active major league hurler, staying south of 90 miles per hour on the gun for most of the afternoon. Nor was he as accurate as Yankees fans have come to expect the former Cy Young winner to be. And overall, Sabathia’s performance was rather lackluster for a guy who is set to earn nearly $120 million over the next five years under a 2012 contract extension that will keep him in pinstripes until he’s 36.

But no one necessarily expected Sabathia to look like the bona fide ace that he has proved to be in the past. Not yet, anyway. And none of what he does on the field will matter until he takes the mound on Opening Day against the Red Sox — unless he gets hurt, that is. So when he left the field pain-free Friday — his elbow still intact — that was all that really mattered.

“You’re always nervous going into a game, and if somebody tells you they’re not, they’re lying,” Sabathia said. “But as far as getting on the mound, arm feeling good, all that, there was no problem with that. … Changeup was good, fastball command needs to be a little better, but I felt pretty good for the first time out.”

It can’t be overstated how critical it is to New York that Sabathia stay healthy, this year in particular. The injury bug has plagued the aging and suddenly underrated Yankees so far this offseason and spring, and they can’t afford to add another to the list — especially not another player of Sabathia’s caliber.

Among the already-injured are Alex Rodriguez, who had hip surgery this offseason and will miss a large portion of the season; Curtis Granderson, who broke his forearm when he was hit by a pitch in a game earlier this month; and Mark Teixeira, who was recently diagnosed with a strained wrist that could keep him on the shelf as long as 10 weeks.

As for the pitching staff, former top prospect Manny Banuelos is likely to miss the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery and former Mariner Michael Pineda, who missed the entire 2012 season, isn’t expected to return until May or June in the wake of his shoulder injury. Reliever Boone Logan is still recovering from a sore back and Phil Hughes won’t return to the lineup until sometime after Opening Day with a bulging disc in his back.

Then there’s Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera — two Yankee legends down the homestretch of their respective careers — who have only recently returned to action following a broken ankle and a torn ACL, respectively.

That is all to say that the Yankees have enough trouble on their hands with Sabathia healthy, and a setback or a new injury to their most consistent asset could be the final nail in the coffin for a team in transition — one that is going to be more reliant on pitching than ever, with their once-prolific offense looking like a huge question mark this year.

“Before the injuries, our pitching was our strength, and we obviously need that to remain our strength,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told FOXSports.com after Sabathia’s start. “It’s about run creation and run prevention, and so our run prevention has to be even better given the fact that our ability to create runs has taken hits with the loss of Granderson and Teixeira.”

The AL East has vastly improved around the Yankees while they’ve struggled simply to stay afloat, and if they’re going to win at the rate they and their fans are so accustomed to, it’s going to be with their arms that lead the way. That task already seems challenging enough, given that their rotation will leave them increasingly dependent on 40-year-old Andy Pettitte and 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, along with some combination of Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps. That only underlines the need for Sabathia to be on the mound every fifth day.

“That’s just who he is,” Cashman said of Sabathia’s ability to thrive under that kind of pressure. “He’s already handled everything thrown his way, whether it’s in Cleveland being the No. 1 guy, Milwaukee in a pennant race, here in New York winning a world championship. So he’s been there done that enough already, and now he’s just proving it again.”

Always known as a workhorse, Sabathia had trouble staying healthy last season — by his standard, anyway. He needed a DL stint and missed three starts between in June and July with a left groin strain, and then he landed back on the DL again in mid-August with the elbow pain that would later lead to his surgery. All told, Sabathia threw just 200 innings last year after averaging 240 over the last five seasons, dating back to his final year in Cleveland.

As for Friday’s start, it wasn’t flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but it was good enough. Sabathia was nearly decapitated by the first batter he faced, and then he threw away a pickoff attempt to advance Juan Pierre to second. After another single and a walk, Sabathia loaded the bases with no outs, but a 5-3 double play helped limit the damage, though he did end up allowing both of his runs in the inning.

Sabathia forced a groundout to second to start the second inning, but a sharp liner to left and a bunt single put runners on first and second with one out. A fielder’s choice and a lineout to second ended the inning with no runs scored, and in the third, after allowing a leadoff single, Sabathia shut the Marlins down, ending the frame with a strikeout. In the fourth inning, Sabathia again allowed two runners in scoring position, but forced a Pierre popout to right to escape the jam, and a 1-2-3 fifth inning marked the end of his day.

With spring training drawing to a close, Sabathia will likely make two more starts before the games start to count, and the hope is that he’ll improve with each outing. But on a team that’s regressing and can’t seem to get out of its own way, the fact that he’ll be able to make his next start at all seems like something to celebrate for now.

“With veteran guys, it’s just about trying to get their work in, and he feels good,” Cashman said. “He’s been around the block enough, so the only music to my ears with him so far this spring is that he feels free and easy, without restriction, he’s got full extension and he feels really good. Now it’s just about doing the mundane stuff and getting from point A to point Z to start the season.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.