OAKLAND, Calif. -- CC Sabathia's 100th victory as a Yankee was not the most important game he has pitched in his seven-plus seasons in pinstripes; that was probably Game 4 of the 2009 ALCS, when he pitched eight innings of one-run ball against the Los Angeles Angels, giving New York a 3-1 lead in the series and virtually ensuring they would return to the World Series.
Nor was his personal accomplishment as significant as what the team accomplished with its 8-3 win over the Oakland Athletics on Friday night; that was the New York Yankees' third consecutive win, the first time all season they have been able to string wins back-to-back-to-back.
The real significance of this win was that it demonstrated that maybe Sabathia, at 35 and with more than 3,000 innings on his left arm, can still be an important pitcher for a rotation that desperately needs someone to step forward and assume a leading role.
Sabathia is not nearly the pitcher he was in 2009, when the fastball still topped 95 and the changeup and slider still buckled knees.
But now, in his 16th big league season, it finally appears that Sabathia is beginning to master the art of pitching -- and winning -- with a diminished repertoire.
"When I take a look at CC, he’s not the same pitcher he was in Cleveland," said Carlos Beltran, one of the Yankees' hitting stars, with three doubles and three RBIs on Friday. "But he has something other pitchers don’t have. That is experience. He knows how to pitch. He knows that he has to make adjustments. Now, he has great stuff to compete in this league for many, many years."
Many, many years might be an exaggeration -- Sabathia is signed through this season, at $25 million, and has a $25 million option for 2017 that vests unless he ends the season on the DL with a shoulder injury -- but judging off Friday night's outing, he seems to have the stuff to at least pitch effectively for the rest of this season, assuming he can remain healthy.
That might be a foolish assumption, considering he had just come off the disabled list with a groin strain, and considering he missed nearly the entire 2014 season with knee problems. In fact, had his health not given out over the past three seasons, Sabathia would no doubt have reached this milestone a long time ago, with 88 of his 100 wins as a Yankee coming from 2009 to 2013.
During his first five Yankees seasons, Sabathia was 88-42 with a 3.52 ERA and named the MVP of that 2009 ALCS. Since 2014, however, the record is 12-16, the ERA 4.67. Not coincidentally, the Yankees have appeared in one playoff game over that time, and Sabathia was not tapped to start it. This spring, he suffered the indignity of having to compete for the final spot in the rotation.
But now, with Luis Severino and Michael Pineda looking terrible so far, Sabathia has moved up the depth chart as a solid No. 3 behind Masahiro Tanaka and Nathan Eovaldi. Working with some run support on Friday night -- the Yankees had a five-run fourth inning sparked by Beltran's two-run double and Ronald Torreyes' two-run triple -- Sabathia was free to pitch with confidence, keeping the Athletics off balance with a mixture of sliders, cutters, changeups and the occasional four-seamer, none of which topped out higher than 90 mph.
"I just kinda got in a groove as the game went on," Sabathia said. "I threw some good two-seamers, and I got some swings and misses early, so that gave me the confidence to keep throwing it."
The A's only run off Sabathia came after a walk, a hit batter and an RBI single by Matt McBride in the second inning. He allowed just two more hits the rest of the way and finished with a season-high eight strikeouts.
"He's a completely different pitcher," Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. "He's been throwing the cutter for what, less than a year? Fifteen starts? He's starting to get a way better feel for it to both sides of the plate. That is a huge pitch for him."
Asked if he thought Sabathia could still be a top-of-the-rotation starter, McCann said, "Absolutely."
Sabathia, however, is setting his goals lower. He said that after missing so much playing time over the past three seasons, his hope for this season is to throw 200 innings, something he has done eight times in his career, but not since 2013. He said he was unaware of nearing his 100th win as a Yankee -- he now has 217 overall, against 131 losses -- until he came into the clubhouse before the game. He was far more concerned with procuring tickets for the large contingent of family and friends that came to the game from his nearby hometown of Vallejo, California, a number that he said far exceeded his 100 wins.
"It feels good, but all it really means is that I've been on some really good teams here and I've been able to stay healthy," he said. "When I feel good, I know what I'm capable of doing."
And maybe, what the Yankees are capable of doing with him.