BOSTON -- If Saturday's result between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox was an isolated incident -- CC Sabathia getting shelled for seven earned runs in six innings and the Yankees losing 10-4 -- it would be perfectly reasonable that the result was no big deal.
As Sabathia said after the game when asked if the Red Sox were in his head, "I could see that if I hadn't beaten them in the last three years, but I have. That gives me confidence that I can go out and pitch well against this team.''
And if any pitcher on the Yankees' staff not named Mariano Rivera has earned the benefit of the doubt and the right to throw in an occasional clunker, it is Sabathia, who is an indisputable ace and a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate for the fifth consecutive year (he won it in 2007) with his 16-6 record and 2.81 ERA.
But this year, what happened Saturday between Sabathia and the Red Sox is not an isolated incident, it is the latest example of a recurring pattern. And in 2011, it is not an aberration, but until proved otherwise, more like the norm.
For the third straight time, the Red Sox rocked Sabathia's world, scoring a season-high seven runs off him on nine hits, all but one of them hard, including a back-breaking three-run home run by Jacoby Ellsbury in the fourth inning.
Meanwhile, the Yankees were doing nothing with John Lackey and the resulting loss snapped their eight-game winning streak, which was, of course, inevitable.
And judging by his form this year against Boston, so, perhaps, was Sabathia's failure.
In 2009 and 2010, Sabathia seemed like the answer to the Yankees' prayers, an ace who did not turn into a joker against the Red Sox. In eight starts over his first two seasons in pinstripes, Sabathia was 4-1 with a 3.03 ERA against Boston.
This season, the numbers are 0-4 and 7.20.
After pitching perhaps his worst game of the season in one of his team's most important, Sabathia said, "When I'm right I can get anybody out. It was just one of those days.''
That implied that out of 25 starts this season, the fates have decreed that on the four days Sabathia has faced the Red Sox, he would not be at his best, and for the sake of the Yankees and their fans, that implication better be right.
Because otherwise, what Sabathia and Joe Girardi tried to portray as "just one of those days'' might in fact be just another of those days, another of those days that have cropped up periodically this season when Sabathia, the best pitcher on their roster and among the three best pitchers in the American League, simply cannot beat the Boston Red Sox.
And that simply cannot be tolerated.
Simply put, the game Sabathia pitched and the game the Yankees lost was no big deal. Now, a day after having regained the lead in the American League East, the Yankees dropped back into a tie with the Red Sox.
And the same way Saturday's matchup -- Sabathia vs. Lackey -- appeared to be a mismatch in the Yankees' favor but turned out to be quite the opposite, so, too, might Sunday's matchup of Freddy Garcia and Josh Beckett wind up going the way no one expects it to.
But that doesn't change the essential concern the Yankees should have following a game in which the Red Sox treated Sabathia like a batting practice pitcher.
Sabathia, who almost never has a bad day, can have one against the Red Sox in April, May, June and now, August.
But neither he nor the Yankees can afford to have a day like this in October.
That is when Sabathia and his team have no margin for error.
"I believe CC will turn it around, I do,'' Girardi said when asked if he thought his lack of success against Boston this season was beginning to affect his confidence. "I'm not concerned about that at all. I look forward to CC any time he pitches against them.''
Girardi then launched into one of his patented spin jobs in which he turned Sabathia's four losses against the Red Sox this year into an unholy alliance of three bad innings.
"When I look back at his starts, the one game he went 5 1/3 innings and gave up a run (in a 4-0 loss on April 10),'' Girardi said. "Then another game he was ahead 2-0 in the seventh and gave up some runs and lost (8-3 on June 9). I would say this was probably the toughest of all the starts against them.''
The manager conveniently omitted Sabathia's start on May 14, when he was charged with six runs in 6 2/3 innings including a huge three-run homer to Adrian Gonzalez in a 6-0 Yankees defeat.
And he left out that in all three of those earlier losses, he was matched up against Beckett, his Boston counterpart. Facing Lackey, who came in 9-8 with a 6.23 ERA, was supposed to be a breather for Sabathia and the Yankees, a golden opportunity to begin the kind of run they made in 2009, when after losing the first eight meetings of the season to the Red Sox, they swept a four-game series at home on this very weekend to begin their charge to a world championship.
Instead, they now have to rely on Freddy Garcia, who has been brutalized by Boston this season (0-2, 10.13), to salvage the series and allow them to leave town with a narrow hold on first place.
But that is less important than leaving town with lingering doubts about whether their stud can still beat the one team they have to beat, and whether that team now believes it has his number.
"It's possible,'' Girardi said when asked if he thought the Red Sox felt confident they could beat Sabathia. "But when you hit like they do, you probably feel confident against everyone. Their lefties hit lefties and their righties really hit lefties. We've got figure a way to get them out.''
The game was essentially lost in the fourth inning, when the Yankees had wiped out an early 2-0 deficit but failed to fully capitalize on a bases-loaded, no out situation when Nick Swisher hit into a double play.
And just moments after they tied the game, the Red Sox busted it open on Sabathia with five hits in the bottom of the fourth -- a double, three singles and that dagger of a home run by Ellsbury on a fastball that strayed up and over the plate.
"I made a lot of mistakes today,'' Sabathia said. "I knew it was going to be tough from the start because I didn't have my fastball command. They made me work today and I put myself in some bad counts and gave them some pitches to hit.''
Asked if it was the same situation the previous three times he faced Boston, Sabathia said, "I can't remember the last three times. It's a good hitting ballclub. I'm sure I'll get a few more cracks at them and I'll figure it out.''
Sabathia is sure to get two more cracks at them in the regular season, when the Yankees return here at the end of this month and when the Red Sox come to the Bronx one more time at the end of September.
Those are the times when he needs to figure it all out.
Because if he hasn't cracked the code by then, the Yankees are in for a short and stormy October.
NOTES: Mark Teixeira hit his 32nd homer of the season, a solo shot in the eighth to make the score 7-4, but Hector Noesi imploded in the bottom of the inning, allowing three runs on two walks and two hits. He also had a scare when Adrian Gonzalez smoked a bullet right back at him that hit Noesi in the chest and caromed all the way to Teixeira at first. Girardi said Noesi was "fine, but a little sore.'' ... Francisco Cervelli had three hits, including a double. He is 6-for-10 against the Red Sox this season and 11-for-23 (.478) in seven career games at Fenway. ... Curtis Granderson scored his major league-leading 100th run in the fourth on Swisher's DP. ... Girardi said Phil Hughes would be in the bullpen if needed Sunday night, and if not used, would make his scheduled start Tuesday night in New York against the Angels. If Hughes does pitch Sunday, A.J. Burnett would get that start. ... Garcia (10-7, 3.22) gets the unenviable task of facing Beckett (9-4, 2.20) in the series finale. Beckett has beaten the Yankees all three times he has faced them this season, allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings for a 0.86 ERA. First pitch is 8:05 p.m.