CC Sabathia's Recent Return to Form Could Pay Off Big for Yankees Come October

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2015

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees pitches during the second inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on September 20, 2015 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
Adam Hunger/Getty Images

How huge (pun sort of intended) would some vintage CC Sabathia be for the New York Yankees down the stretch?

Yes, the hulking left-hander sports a less-than-stellar 4.80 ERA. And yes, he's an injury-plagued 35-year-old with a creaky right knee.

After two straight solid starts by the six-time All-Star and 2007 American League Cy Young-winner, though, the Yankees can be forgiven for dreaming big.

On Sunday against the New York Mets, in the rubber match of a Subway Series ripe with playoff implications, Sabathia tossed six innings of five-hit, one-run ball with seven strikeouts.

He also picked up his first win since July 8 as New York rolled 11-2, which nudged the Yankees to within 2.5 games of the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East.

Sabathia made his second consecutive strong start Sunday against the Mets.
Sabathia made his second consecutive strong start Sunday against the Mets.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

New York and Toronto will clash beginning Monday in a monumental three-game set north of the border. Sabathia won't pitch in any of those contests, but with the way he's been going, the Yanks probably wish he could.

Sabathia's mini-resurgence also includes a game Sept. 14 that saw him put up zeroes for 6.2 frames against the Tampa Bay Rays, striking out six and throwing a season-high 111 pitches.

"I thought his sinker was tremendous tonight," skipper Joe Girardi told reporters after that appearance. "It just had a lot of movement on it. I thought he used his breaking ball extremely well...he came up big for us and gave us a ton of distance."

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Sabathia returned from the disabled list Sept. 9 and began wearing a knee brace that the New York Post's Fred Kerber said the southpaw "once viewed as acceptable as eating poached sand."

"It feels good," Sabathia said after his first go-round with the brace, per Kerber. "In the middle of the first inning, once I got over that mental hurdle it held up great and my knee felt fine, so I'm excited about it."

New York should be equally excited, particularly considering the state of its rotation.

Ace Masahiro Tanaka will miss at least one start with a hamstring injury.
Ace Masahiro Tanaka will miss at least one start with a hamstring injury.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Ace Masahiro Tanaka will miss at least one start, against Toronto, with a hamstring strain, per ESPN's Wallace Matthews. And hard-throwing right-hander Nathan Eovaldi is out for the remainder of the regular season, and quite possibly beyond, with elbow inflammation.

The rest of the bunch—Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and rookie Luis Severino—are an uneasy mix of inconsistent and untested.

That leaves a void at the top of the Yankees' starting corps. The depth of their rotation will only matter if they get past the Wild Card Game, either by winning it or catching the Blue Jays. But assuming New York advances to the division series, it'll need another starter or two to seize the moment.

Sabathia certainly has experience. He's pitched in the postseason in six separate seasons, with the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers and four times with the Yankees, including a title run in 2009 when he won American League Championship Series MVP honors.

His recent track record, however, is less than sterling. He pitched just 46 innings in 2014 while posting a career-worst 5.28 ERA, and he surrendered a major league-leading 112 earned runs  in 2013.

When Sabathia landed on the DL in August, it was worth wondering if his career was in jeopardy.
When Sabathia landed on the DL in August, it was worth wondering if his career was in jeopardy.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Entering 2015, it was worth wondering if Sabathia could ever regain his old form. In August, when Sabathia landed on the disabled list with knee inflammation, Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media questioned whether he'd ever pitch again.

Now, after avoiding surgery and making a couple of encouraging trips to the hill, he's teasing the old CC. The good CC. The clock hasn't turned back yet, but the gears are churning.

Assuming the Yankees end up in the one-game, do-or-die wild-card showdown, they'd surely throw out Tanaka if he's healthy. But if the Yankees win that game—had the season ended Sunday, their opponent would have been the Houston Astroswould Sabathia be the man to start Game 1 of the division series?

It would have been an improbable notion a few weeks ago—laughable, even. Now, it's entirely plausible. 

At the very least, expect Sabathia to burn what's left in the tank the rest of the way. "I'm not going to back off or anything," he said during his stint on the DL back in late August, per George A. King III of the New York Post. "It's not that time for that."

It is, on the other hand, time for a playoff run in the Bronx. And, perhaps, for CC Sabathia to come up hugejust like he did during New York's sprint to a Commissioner's Trophy a half-dozen years ago.

All statistics current as of Sept. 20 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.