CC succeeds where others would fail

CHICAGO -- As a ballgame it was an absolute mess, 3½ hours of utter chaos in which the Yankees held a six-run lead after five innings but still had to drag Mariano Rivera out of his rocking chair to get the final three outs.

They wound up beating the White Sox 12-9, remaining in a first-place tie with the Tampa Bay Rays, who beat the Red Sox, but one enormous question hung over the proceeding after all the euphoria had begun to fade away.

What if any pitcher on the Yankees staff other than CC Sabathia had started this game?

What if A.J. Burnett or Javy Vazquez or even Phil Hughes had been staked to six runs over the first three innings, courtesy of three two-run homers, and then began giving it back, as Sabathia did? What if it was the rookie, Ivan Nova, who gets to demonstrate Sunday whether his promising start five days ago in Toronto was the real thing or just another mirage?

Would any of them have been able to do what Sabathia did after the Yankees extended their lead from a precarious 6-5 to a slightly more comfortable 10-5 in the top of the fifth, namely put a stop to the dangerous White Sox bats then and there?

Of course, you know the answer to that question as well as I do. The first two pitchers would have certainly given that lead back, too, and the way Hughes has looked lately, there's no guarantee he would have held the fort there, either. As for Nova, we will eventually find out what he is made of, and probably sooner rather than later.

But we don't even have to ask those questions about Sabathia, because we already know the answer. He may have the body of the Pillsbury Doughboy but if you were to cut him open, you'd find not a drop of jelly inside.

The big fella is tough even when he's not so good, like Saturday night, when he allowed more runs than he has in three full months.

"That's what aces are able to do," Joe Girardi said. "That's why they win so many games."

That rather simplistic explanation doesn't do justice to what Sabathia did against the White Sox, on a night when his out pitch, the changeup, was more likely to fly out of the park, as it did twice in the first four innings. But with Sabathia, there is never any panic, never any tantrums, never any loss of confidence or self-belief, or at least, none that anyone can see.

After the Yankees tacked on four runs in the fifth inning, all they needed from Sabathia was a shut-down inning. And that is exactly what they got.

After having struggled through the first four, surrendering monstrous two-run home runs to Paul Konerko and Andruw Jones, Sabathia came up with his first and only 1-2-3 inning of the game, striking out Konerko and Carlos Quentin on sliders. And he followed it by striking out the side in the sixth to complete a run of seven strikeouts out of 11 batters following Jones' home run.

It wasn't that his stuff got any better -- his fastball was clocked at 97 mph all night long -- but, as he often does, Sabathia was able to adjust the way he used it to turn the momentum of the game.

"My changeup wasn't really doing anything tonight, it was too hard and cutting back over the plate," he said. "But I had to keep throwing it because it's an important pitch for me. I just had to be careful with it."

He also began throwing more curveballs --what he called "get-me-over curveballs" -- for first-pitch strikes, which allowed him to use his fastball and cutter as his out-pitch rather than the changeup. By the time he left the game, having once again thrown seven innings, things seemed well in hand.

Of course, the bullpen made it interesting, with first Joba Chamberlain and then David Robertson conspiring to ruin what should have been a day off for Rivera, who himself needed a clutch double play ball to quell a budding threat in the ninth.

It all looks a lot better in the box score than it did on the field but in the end, Sabathia, who incredibly has a Cy Young Award but has never won 20 games, had run his record to a stellar 18-5.

"I'll think about it when I win one more," Sabathia said when asked about the looming prospect of finally winning 20 games. "Until then, I'll just keep trying to do my job, put up zeroes and keep us in ballgames."

Because that's what aces do.

GAME NOTES: It was a huge night for rookie third baseman Eduardo Nunez, who had three hits, four RBIs and his first major league home run, a line shot into the left-field seats in the second inning off John Danks (12-9). The Yankees retrieved the ball form the fan who caught it, in exchange for two autographed balls -- one by Nunez, the other by Derek Jeter. The Yankees security guard who presented Nunez with his memento had just one caveat: that Nunez ask Jeter to sign the ball, which he did. ... Nick Swisher, whose brief tenure with the White Sox ended less than amicably, enjoyed his night against former manager Ozzie Guillen, with two hits, three RBIs and his 24th homer of the year in the first inning. ... Marcus Thames continues to make the most of his playing time, absolutely crushing two home runs, one off Danks in the third and the other off right-hander Carlos Torres leading off the ninth after falling behind 0-2. ... Jorge Posada had two doubles and two RBIs. ... Sunday's matchup: Nova (0-0, 2.16) vs. RHP Gavin Floyd (9-10, 3.91). First pitch, 2:05 p.m.

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

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