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CC Sabathia comes roaring back, just in time for stretch run

NEW YORK -- It would be silly to try to make the case that, without an effective CC Sabathia, the New York Yankees are dead meat in the American League East.

Over the past month, the Yankees are 17-8 and have gone from a slim one-game lead in the division to a high-water mark of seven games on July 28, and now sit 4½ games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays, who come to the Bronx on Friday.

And over that stretch, the Yankees got exactly one win out of CC Sabathia. They were doing just fine without him or, if you will, in spite of him.

But it would be just as silly to argue that an effective Sabathia, like the one who pitched efficiently and bellowed ferociously against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, does not significantly improve their chances for a successful October.

Quite frankly, the Sabathia who has taken the mound most games this season has been an anchor on an otherwise pretty effective rotation. The one who pitched on Thursday was more like a battleship going full steam ahead.

For one of the few times this season, Sabathia regularly lit up the radar gun with 94-mph fastballs, and for one of the even fewer times this season, he managed to escape that one disastrous inning that has been his downfall in most of his eight losses.

But the moment that Yankees fans should take away from this one was not Sabathia's last hitter of the night, Pablo Sandoval, who became his eighth strikeout victim, or even Jacoby Ellsbury's solo home run in the seventh that provided the margin of victory in the Yankees' 2-1 win over the Red Sox.

It was the war cry that Sabathia unleashed after slipping one of those 94-mph heaters past David Ortiz with the bases loaded to end the fifth inning when it appeared more than likely Papi was about to bust the game open. Sabathia had set up the moment by lulling Ortiz into a slumber with a pair of sliders, and when the big fella swung through the fastball that everyone in the park had to know was coming, the Yankees' erstwhile ace could hardly contain himself.

He clenched his fists, flexed his shoulders, hunched his back and let fly a stream of invective that the YES Network cameras caught in all its profane glory. What he said was an earthier variation of "Begone and never darken my door again!" and the impression it left was that Sabathia's words were not directed so much at Ortiz as at his own season-long struggles.

"Obviously I was a little fired up and I think that was just my passion coming out," he said. "You know it’s a fine line with me, so I have to be careful. But it worked out for me tonight."

Sabathia had walked that same line an inning earlier when he and plate umpire Rob Drake had a verbal disagreement over a 2-2 pitch to Hanley Ramirez that was called a ball. That one threatened to escalate -- Sabathia had been ejected earlier this season for arguing balls and strikes -- so Yankees manager Joe Girardi came out to defuse things and keep Sabathia in the game a little longer.

The two incidents served to illustrate a point that may have escaped a lot of Yankees fans as they watch Sabathia labor through the worst season of his proud career: You think you hate the way CC has been pitching? Well, Sabathia hates it even more.

That is why his performance on this night -- six innings, just one run on three hits, three walks and those eight K's -- was such a source of chest-thumping for him and his team, and why suddenly even Girardi was moved to admit that, yes, velocity does matter. Sabathia threw as hard as he has all year, and the difference was obvious from all those nights when his fastball barely nudged 90.

"It definitely helped," Girardi said of Sabathia's velocity. "Whenever you have more arm speed, I think it helps the rest of your stuff as well."

Asked why he thought Sabathia was suddenly able to throw like the old CC again, the manager said, "I have no idea. Dehydration?"

That was a somewhat unfunny reference to Sabathia's last start, a subpar performance in the Texas furnace that sent him to the hospital afterward for an IV.

Sabathia said he was aware that he was throwing harder, but did not glance back at the scoreboard to see exactly how hard. "I was just looking at the swings," he said. "When I'm getting swings and misses on fastballs up like that, it feels pretty good."

Sabathia did not get the win -- that went to Justin Wilson, who came into a tie game in the top of the seventh -- but what he got was something potentially much more important for himself and his team. More than one of Sabathia's teammates mentioned his show of emotion on the mound as a sign that the former Cy Young Award winner was getting his confidence back after a stretch of more than two seasons that would try the resolve of most any professional athlete.

"I think this means a lot," Girardi said. "This is a guy that's been through this a lot, overcome a lot, and understands the magnitude of the games at this time of year. I think it meant a lot to him."

And might wind up meaning even more to the Yankees down the stretch.