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CC Sabathia comes up small again

ST. PETERSBURG. Fla. -- For most of his career, CC Sabathia has been the epitome of an ace -- a big, strong power pitcher whose aim is not just to retire hitters, but dominate them.

For much of this season, Sabathia hasn't been that pitcher. But for five innings on Saturday night, he was all that and more in a game in which the Yankees needed him to be everything he could be.

Then came the sixth inning, and as Yogi used to say, it was déjà vu all over again.

Command lost, strike zone misplaced, lead blown.

Game over.

If this were April, May, June or July, the Yankees might have been able to shrug it off, take the positives from what Joe Girardi called "probably the best five innings [Sabathia] has thrown all year" and hope to improve on it five days from now.

But it is late August, the games are dwindling down to a precious few, and like Sabathia against the Tampa Bay Rays and David Price Saturday night, the Yankees have very little margin for error.

Their 4-2 loss at Tropicana Field -- three of the runs surrendered by Sabathia in a messy sixth inning after the Yankees had squeaked out a 2-0 lead -- was in some ways easily predictable.

After all, the Rays had won 15 of the previous 20 games between the two clubs at The Trop, and Price was 5-1 against Sabathia in eight previous head-to-head matchups.

But at the same time, it was a kick in the gut to a team that just two days ago was starting to look like it had turned its season around, and had a reasonable shot at October baseball after all.

Now, it looks like that two-week run, during which the Yankees won 11 of 14 games to plunge themselves right back into the thick of the AL wild-card race, was just a cruel tease.

Over the past two nights, cold reality has slapped them smack in the face. The offense still can't score runs. The Yankees still can't beat the Rays in St. Petersburg. And even when he turns in five stellar innings to start a game, Sabathia no longer seems capable of pitching like an ace.

That means winning the games a team has to win. It means beating the opponent's best pitcher. It means holding on to leads, even narrow ones. And it means delivering shutdown innings as needed.

Sabathia has been able to do none of those things this season. That is surprising because coming into 2013, he seemed primed to have a big year. He was nearly two years removed from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and over the winter, he had an elbow clean-out that was supposed to have alleviated that pain that caused him to falter late last season.

Plus, he had shed at least 25 pounds and, unlike other seasons, had kept it off.

But all of those developments, which could reasonably have been expected to make Sabathia an even better pitcher, have not been able to stop him from getting worse.

And no one is more aware of it than Sabathia himself.

In a season in which he has already delivered a number of stinging self-rebukes, this is what Sabathia had to say about his 2013 season after Saturday's game: "I feel like I can't stop the bleeding. If something gets going, it's hard for me to make a pitch. Having to go down like this, it sucks."

Asked what the year has felt like so far, Sabathia responded, "One big inning."

He meant one big bad inning, of course, kind of like the one that cost him this game.

With the Yankees leading 2-0, Sabathia -- who had allowed just two baserunners through the first five innings, on a double and a walk -- started off by surrendering a leadoff single to Sam Fuld, a professional pest.

And that was all it took to send Sabathia into a downward spiral that culminated in defeat.

As the speedy Fuld flitted off first base, Sabathia found himself preoccupied with holding the runner. That resulted in a four-pitch walk to Desmond Jennings. When Sabathia went to 2-0 on the next hitter, Ben Zobrist, pitching coach Larry Rothschild came out for a chat.

"I was trying to nibble," Sabathia said. "I don't know why. I worried too much about Fuld and just lost my release point."

Then, while winding up to deliver a 3-1 pitch to Zobrist, a ball got loose from the Yankees bullpen and rolled onto the field. Sabathia had to stop his delivery and regroup, an event he said did not affect him.

But his very next pitch was a fat one, and Zobrist smacked it into the gap for a two-run double that tied the game. When Evan Longoria followed with an RBI single, the Rays had all they would need to win the game. Sabathia regrouped after that, striking out the next two hitters, but it was too late.

"It's frustrating," Sabathia said. "It's something that I've expressed over the past two years, not being able to hold a lead, and it happened again tonight."

All season long, Sabathia has insisted he is healthy, and when asked if he believes it, Rothschild offered, "He says he is."

So the possibility that the elbow is sore again is certainly in play.

So, too, is the theory that the weight loss has robbed Sabathia of some velocity, although he hit 95 on the gun several times Saturday night.

Which leaves the most disturbing prospect of all, the possibility that at 33, the Yankees have already seen the best of Sabathia while still having to pay him $96 million over the next four years.

That contract might not be a disaster of A-Rod-ian proportions, but unless Sabathia finds a way to turn it all round, it might turn out to be the next-worst thing.

But that is an issue to be dealt with down the road. Right now, the Yankees need victories -- and lots of them -- in the 34 games left in the season. And losing Saturday night not only dropped them seven games back in the wild-card race, the only one they have a chance of winning, but 4 1/2 out of the second wild-card spot.

And it takes another precious day off the calendar for them to make up any of that lost ground.

"You look at those first five innings and you do take a positive out of that," Girardi said. "But we need to win games. We can't let this carry over. We've got to turn it around tomorrow and play well the rest of this road trip."

In years gone by, the Yankees would look to Sabathia to help them recover from a loss like this.

This year, they look for someone else -- it is Ivan Nova's turn in Sunday's series finale -- to help them recover from CC. And on top of all the players lost to injury this season, the loss of their ace might be the one they ultimately cannot recover from.