TAMPA, Fla. -- As he took the mound for his first start in 10 months and one week, CC Sabathia admitted he was nervous, more nervous than he has been in a long time -- maybe even more nervous than he will be if he gets the Opening Day start at Yankees Stadium.
"I was, I mean, really nervous," Sabathia said. "That was kind of weird, but I think it’s just be being back out here and wanting to be with my teammates and just being my first game. I never really kind of settled in.”
Sabathia was a lot more relaxed after it was all over, a two-inning stint in which he pitched a clean first inning but got banged around for four hits and two runs in the second. He was encouraged to have left the mound healthy and, at least on the YES Network radar gun, his fastball -- which has been missing in action for the past couple of seasons -- clocked in at 96 MPH, although scouts behind home plate had him more in the 90-92 range.
Sabathia had two strikeouts, one swinging on a changeup to Josh Donaldson in the first inning, the other looking on a letter-high inside fastball to Dalton Pompey. Sabathia called that pitch "my Andy pitch'' in homage to Andy Pettitte, who has become something of a mentor in this late, transitional phase of Sabathia's career.
And he characterized the outing as about as good as he could have expected coming off the longest layoff of his 14-year big league career.
"Obviously you don’t want to give up runs, but it’s spring training, it is what it is," he said. "Just being able to command the baseball, let it go, throw it hard, it feels good."
There were encouraging signs in Sabathia's 31-pitch outing; even hitting 92 MPH on a fastball that had been loitering at about 89 is a positive development. And the changeup that he got Donaldson with is the kind of pitch Sabathia says we should expect to see more of in 2015.
"I want to work on my changeup a little more, get that down a bit," he said. “I want to get back to it being my second pitch and not my cutter.”
That could be a way of saving a 34-year-old elbow that underwent cleanout surgery two winters ago, and also a concession to the obvious fact that Sabathia will never be the kind of flamethrower he was when he won the Cy Young for the Cleveland Indians in 2007. To that end, Sabathia has tapped into the Pettite's fund of knowledge, since the retired Yankees lefthander had to make a similar conversion late in his career.
"I think if you look at the way I pitch right now, over the past five years, a lot reflects what me and Andy have talked about," he said. "Moving the ball in and out, throwing my two-seamer in to righties. He’s had a huge influence on me."
But there were also disturbingly familiar elements in this outing that were reminiscent of the past two seasons, notably Sabathia's tendency to follow a strong inning with an inning in which he gets hit hard. Although he might have benefited from having a more mobile third baseman behind him -- Alex Rodriguez barely moved toward Dioner Navarro's leadoff single in the second that whizzed right past him -- Sabathia struggled to finish off the inning. After retiring the two batters following Navarro, Dayan Viciedo smoked a fastball into the right-center gap for an RBI double off Sabathia. Devon Travis then lined a single to left to drive in a second run, and Josh Thole also singled, but Sabathia was saved a third run when Didi Gregorius' relay cut Travis down at the plate.
Sabathia shrugged that off as an occupational hazard of pitching in spring training, preferring to focus on his often-troublesome body.
"My knee felt good. Warming up I felt good," he said. "I haven’t had any problems with my knee, so that wasn’t it. I think just (the nerves of) being in a baseball game.”
For the first time in many years, the possibility looms that the ball will not be in Sabathia's left hand to start Opening Day.
"I can’t sit here and say it’s going to make or break me if I don’t start opening day," he said. "I’ve done it a lot (11 times). I hate to sound like I don’t care. Because I do. But I want to be there in September, and for game one of whatever playoff series. I’ll be happy with that."