CC Sabathia doesn't need a label to deliver ace-grade work

MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s been a highly publicized road back for CC Sabathia since he announced before last year’s wild-card game that he was checking himself into alcohol rehab. That said, it’s starting to look more and more like the star pitcher is indeed back. And while Sabathia’s best playing days are in the rearview mirror, getting him back to even a fraction of the pitcher he used to be would be huge for the New York Yankees as they work to battle their way out of the cellar of the American League East.

Sabathia got his team off to a good start in that quest on Thursday night with a stellar outing in a 4-1 victory over the lowly Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Though he wasn’t exactly efficient, Sabathia proved effective over six innings, allowing six hits and one earned run, while striking out seven. He moved his record to 5-4 on the season and dropped his ERA to 2.20 in the process.

Sabathia is aware of the current run he’s on -- a run that’s seen his ERA below 1.00 over his past seven starts.

“I’ll hopefully keep it going, keep building,” Sabathia said, though he wasn’t fully satisfied after the win. “The command wasn’t where I wanted it to be. So hopefully it is in five days when I’m out there again.”

Sabathia struggled to find the strike zone early, getting himself into trouble a few times yet always finding a way to work out of the jam. He labored through the second inning, loading the bases before getting Twins left fielder Robbie Grossman to line out to first baseman Ike Davis.

“That was huge, especially early in the game and keeping them off the scoreboard,” Sabathia said.

Sabathia got into hot water again in the fourth inning and surrendered a run on an RBI single from Eduardo Nunez before getting Grossman again -- this time via the strikeout.

“He just continued to make pitches when he had to,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He battled through and threw a lot of pitches.”

Sabathia settled down after allowing the run and seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. He also seemed to lean on his cutter in the most important situations. That has become his out pitch this season, as his fastball velocity has dropped from where it used to be in his prime.

“That’s been a big pitch for him, and Andy [Pettitte] talked to him about it,” Girardi said. “It’s been a big pitch for him to get out of innings. He does some different things with it. He’ll throw it down. He’ll throw it up. He moves it around. It’s been a big pitch for him.”

After making Kyle Gibson look like a Cy Young contender for more than half the game, the Yankees finally got to the Twins starter in the top of the sixth inning. They loaded the bases with no outs, and Jacoby Ellsbury smoked an RBI single to center to tie the game at 1-1.

Sabathia went out for one more inning, retiring the side in order, to set the stage for shortstop Didi Gregorius to play hero. Gregorius stepped in with runners on second and third and crushed a first-pitch fastball from reliever Fernando Abad over the right-field fence to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

At the end of the night, though, Sabathia was the talk of the locker room. As teammates celebrated in the clubhouse postgame, "The Life of Pablo" by Kanye West blaring in the background, it seemed like forever ago that Sabathia was battling for that No. 5 spot in the rotation on Opening Day. Sabathia is now viewed by many as the team’s ace, whether Girardi admits it or not.

“That tag ‘ace’ doesn’t mean anything,” said Girardi, refusing to bite. “It means that a guy is the Opening Day starter.”

Nevertheless, the labels aside, Girardi conceded that he’d be hard pressed to find someone he’d rather throw with his team entering a must-win series on a four-game losing streak.

“You feel really good,” Girardi said, pointing toward his chest, “because we know what’s in there.”