CC Sabathia plows toward 20

KANSAS CITY -- CC Sabathia is a closer to plowhorse than thoroughbred. He is more tractor than race car.

He's no body beautiful, but he is surprisingly athletic and marvelously efficient -- a lean, mean throwing machine hidden inside a soft casing. And on a night in which one young, strong outfielder (Gregor Blanco) had to leave the game after four innings with heat exhaustion and another (Nick Swisher) lasted only seven thanks to the tropical, 94-degree weather, there was Sabathia, all 300-plus pounds of him, still pumping 95-mph fastballs two-thirds of the way into the ninth inning.

He doesn't dazzle you while he's out there. In only one game all season has he struck out as many as 10 batters. And, counting backward, in his previous five starts the hit totals have been as follows: six, eight, nine, 11 and eight.

Thursday night, the number was 10, as in hits by the Royals, and the number of earned runs was the same as the number of strikeouts: three.

And yet, the only number that is really important with Sabathia is the one that Joe Girardi likes to call the number in the left-hand column, the one where they keep track of wins.

After the Yankees' 4-3 victory, preserved in a white-knuckle ninth inning by David Robertson, who came on to get the final out, the left-hand column of CC Sabathia's record now reads 15. That's the most he has ever had at this point in a season, even his Cy Young Award-winning 2007.

In some ways, he is nothing a team would envision its ace to be and at the same time, everything a team could want, a guy who methodically, inexorably, inevitably grinds and grinds and grinds until the opposing team has been worn down to a harmless little nub.

"I thought he threw the ball great,'' Girardi said in the understatement of the night, which only begged the obvious question: Then why wasn't he allowed to finish what he started?

Thankfully, since Robertson escaped the ninth-inning jam of having the tying run on third and the winning run on second by getting Jason Kendall to wave at a curveball for the final out, the question was more a matter of curiosity than interrogation. By now, 114 games into the season, we all know if Girardi is going to err, it is likely to be on the side of caution and if he is going to pull a pitcher, it is likely to be too early rather than too late.

He laid that out on the first weekend of the season when he insisted he would have pulled Sabathia after eight innings against the Rays whether he still had the no-hitter he had pitched through seven or not.

So it should have come as no surprise that even though there were two out in the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera, who had pitched in four of the previous five games, was not walking through that bullpen door, here came Girardi to take the ball from Sabathia and hand it to Robertson, his substitute closer for the night.

"With the heat, we don't want to wear this big guy down,'' Girardi said. "He's important to us down the stretch. Yeah, it is a tougher call without Mo, but that's what I get paid to do.''

Since managers, too, get judged by the number in that left-hand column, it turned out to be the right call, although not without an anxious moment or two or three.

The Yankees had led all night, from the second inning, when the "totally reformed'' swing of Curtis Granderson delivered an RBI single -- off a left-hander! -- and gave them a 1-0 lead, which they added to with newly returned papa Mark Teixeira's sac fly in the third and Austin Kearns' solo home run in the fourth.

The Royals got one of their own in the bottom of the fourth on a double by Alex Gordon and a single by Mike Aviles, but for the rest of the night, Sabathia was lulling them to sleep with the hum of fastballs that averaged 95 mph all night and at times brushed up against the day's high temperature, 99.

Entering the ninth, Sabathia had thrown just 100 pitches, which for him is just warming up, considering that 13 times this season he has exceeded 110 pitches and twice has hit 120.

After his 110th pitch of the night, which was bounced for a forceout by Mitch Maier, Girardi came and got him even though there was just one more out to be had.

"Getting that close, one out away, that's a tough decision for Joe to make,'' Sabathia said in his normally placid fashion. "I felt I could have finished up, but I have a lot of confidence in our bullpen.''

Robertson allowed two of the runners he inherited from Sabathia to score when Willie Bloomquist doubled into the gap, and then suffered the agony of mishandling Wilson Betemit's dribbler in front of the mound, which became an infield hit, before his climactic battle with Kendall. In the process, Robertson became the third Yankees pitcher not named Mariano to earn a save this season.

"There's not too many of those to go around,'' he said. "So I'll take it.''

Afterward, Sabathia shared the secret of his success in beating the heat that wore down some younger and seemingly fitter men. "I drank a bunch of waters and a bunch of Gatorades all game,'' he said. "I started [Wednesday] on the plane, knowing it was gonna be hot, so I got a good amount in me right now.''

By "a bunch,'' Sabathia meant a full bottle of each during every inning that the Yankees batted. That, coupled with his affection for hot weather -- "I find it's easier for me to get loose and I don't have to work as hard to throw hard''-- and his impossibly even-keeled personality combined to put him on track for what could well be the first 20-win season of his career.

"That's something I can't think about,'' he said. "Man, I try to stay away from personal goals. I'd rather win a World Series than win 20 games or win a Cy Young.''

He's already got two of them, but this might be the year that CC Sabathia, a plowhorse of a pitcher, finally hits the Triple Crown.

GAME NOTES: Working with his new, "quieter'' -- meaning: less pre-swing movement -- stance, Granderson went 2-for-4. "It's still a work in progress,'' he said. ... Girardi said Swisher, who had three hits, "looked gassed'' after seven innings and pulled him in favor of Brett Gardner. ... Kearns is now 6-for-19 (.316) since joining the Yankees at the trade deadline. ... Sabathia's 15th win ties him with Tampa Bay's David Price for the AL lead. With the Rays idle, the Yankees increased their lead in the division to two games. ... Friday's matchup: Dustin Moseley (2-1, 3.86) vs. RHP Kyle Davies (5-7, 5.21), first pitch scheduled for 8:10 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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