CC Sabathia stood tall in the relatively small Bradenton clubhouse. He was wearing a Raiders cap and a black Air Jordan t-shirt. Forget what he’d just done on the field — another four scoreless innings, more of the same this spring — it was in front of his locker postgame that Sabathia truly looked like his old self. Confident. Excited. Comfortable in his own skin.
And at some point it became clear: Sabathia didn’t feel this way when he broke camp a year ago. And he acknowledged it. He’s heading into this season full of confidence, but he entered last season with concerns; concerns that played out through the worst season of his career.
“Of course,” he said. “I didn’t know that the weight loss was going to affect me that much. There were just some games that I was short, just didn’t have the stuff. It was frustrating, but I can accept getting beat this year if I do, just because I feel so much better.”
At 33 years old, Sabathia isn’t short-changing himself this season. He kept the weight off, but he was smarter about it this offseason, making sure to maintain his strength and build his durability. His fastball velocity is still diminished, but he’s learned to work with it, going back to his changeup and incorporating a new cutter. He’ll make his sixth Yankees Opening Day start on Tuesday, and this time he feels fully capable of pitching like a No. 1.
“I just didn’t have the stuff last year,” he said. “We keep talking about last year, last year. My stuff wasn’t the same. I wasn’t as strong. I didn’t have any life on my fastball. It just wasn’t the same guy.”
He’s looked more like the same guy this spring. No, his fastball isn’t reaching the mid-90s, but he’s locating it with consistency. He’s getting a ton of ground balls, keeping hitters off balance, and getting steady results even against late-spring lineups full of big leaguers.
“Velocity is overrated in baseball,” former Yankees and current Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “Throwing hard is not being good. Being good is being good. Greg Maddux was good and he didn’t throw hard. Throwing hard is not the reason (Sabathia) was good in the first place. Being able to pitch is why he was good.”
Sabathia said he got Martin to swing and miss at one of his cutters today (Sabathia laughed because he said Martin looked at him as if to say, “when did you start throwing that?”). After today’s four scoreless innings, Sabathia will leave spring training with a 1.29 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP. Last spring he had a 5.40 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP.
“Pitchers often lose their velocity but they gain in other areas,” Martin said. “They gain in command. They gain in savvy. He’s going to be fine.”
We’ll see. Spring training numbers are often meaningless, but there’s something about the way Sabathia is carrying himself this spring. When he was asked today about his velocity — by a reporter he didn’t know, one who didn’t know the topic had been beaten to death — Sabathia answered quickly and moved on, joking that one of the beat guys told the new guy to sneak in a velocity question. He doesn’t seem bothered, doesn’t seem worried. He seems like the Sabathia the Yankees knew during his first four years in New York.
“I was telling Stevie (Donohue) today, I feel so much stronger,” he said. “Just total body, legs, everything. Mentally, everything. I’m ready to go. … “I look to pitch well every time no matter what, spring training or the World Series. I’m glad that I pitched well (this spring). Now it’s time to clean the slate and start the season.”
· Nothing that’s likely to make SportsCenter’s top plays, but Dean Anna made some nice plays at shortstop today. I was told heading into the season that he was more of a second baseman who could kind of play a passable short, but he’s actually looked pretty good there. To me, anyway. Ball got past him in the hole today, but we’ve also seen him make at least one dazzling play going that way. “I don’t think I’ve seen too much of second and third (this spring),” Anna said. “It’s nice to be playing short every day though, because when you’re playing short, second and third become pretty easy. It’s when you’re playing second a lot, and you go right to short, that’s when you’ve got to make sure you’re getting your reps there so it’s not going to be that much of a transition.”
· Keeps happening. Yankees pitchers keep bringing up Brian McCann’s name unprompted. Today it was Sabathia talking about his cutter. “It’s got to be the right spot,” Sabathia said. “I’ll just wait for Mac to call it. He’s done a great job of really kind of learning us. Today he did a good job of, a couple times where I wanted to throw a pitch, he just put it right down. That lets me know that we’re getting on the same page. He knows what I’m trying to do, so I’ll just let him call it in the flow of the game and we’ll go with it.”
· Dellin Betances continues to make his case for a roster spot. Today he allowed a double to the first hitter he faced, but he stranded the runner with a ground ball, a strikeout and a low line drive. “He had a very, very good spring,” Girardi. I think it would have to be a surprise if Betances isn’t chosen for the bullpen.
· Speaking of making a case, Cesar Cabral stranded a runner for David Phelps in the eighth inning, then he pitched a scoreless ninth, striking out the last two batters he faced. Not to be completely outdone, Vidal Nuno pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning with two strikeouts of his own.
· Sounds like Phelps and Warren — possibly Cabral, Nuno and Betances as well — will pitch again on Saturday as their final spring tune up two days before the season opener in Houston.
· Nothing has changed with Jacoby Ellsbury. He’s still going to play in a minor league game tomorrow and the expectation is that he’ll be fully healthy for the season opener.
· Box score notes: Good day for leadoff hitter Ichiro Suzuki who went 3-for-4 with two runs and an RBI. He was caught stealing, but hit enough to raise his spring batting average to .255. … Eduardo Nunez also had a three-hit game, and so did Zoilo Almonte, who doubled and has a .410 spring batting average on the very day he was technically optioned to Triple-A. Adonis Garcia continued his own terrific spring with a 2-for-3 afternoon that included a double and a stolen base. Antoan Richardson also stole a bag. … No error on the play, but Yangervis Solarte did make a bad throw trying to turn a double play today. Anna was part of three double plays at shortstop. … The Yankees won 4-2 with both Pirates runs coming off Phelps in the eighth inning. He allowed three hits and a walk. Two of those hits went for extra bases.
· Final word goes to Girardi on Sabathia: “I see him comfortable on the mound overall. Locating well, changing speeds well, I think he’s confident in all of his stuff. … I think he started to (make necessary adjustments) at the end of last year. His last start was obviously outstanding, and I thought he started to transition, accept it and understand what he had to do to be successful. I think he’s carried it over this spring.”
Associated Press photos