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.