On cool night, Sabathia finds way to heat up
Left-hander shakes off slow start to pitch into eighth inning
NEW YORK -- Game-time temperature on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium was 73 degrees. That's balmy for mid-April in the Bronx, but evidently not yet warm enough for Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia, who struggled again early in an 8-3 win over the Twins.Sabathia loves the warm weather, and the hotter the better, as his career splits indicate. During Aprils throughout his career, he's 18-14 with a 4.17 ERA. His best month is August. When the humidity is high, he's 41-12 with a 3.29 ERA. Really, from June on, he's basically untouchable. This year has followed suit: he's 1-0 with a 5.59 ERA in his first three starts. Yankees manager Joe Girardi has a theory about it, sort of. "CC is a guy who has a really good changeup, and that's a feeling pitch," Girardi said. "Obviously, the warmer it is, the better feeling you're going to have in your fingers. Some guys just enjoy that kind of weather more. CC doesn't mind if it's 95 degrees and really hot. I always really disliked those days, but it doesn't seem to bother him." There you have it, and that may be as good as anything. On Tuesday, Sabathia got better as the game grew longer and the temperature dropped a couple degrees. After allowing all of his three runs and four hits in the opening three innings, he settled down to retire 13 in a row until Trevor Plouffe walked with two outs in the seventh inning. Girardi eventually pulled Sabathia after Clete Thomas whiffed to open the eighth. The Yankees' ace had already thrown 112 pitches and struck out seven. Girardi said he wasn't ready to have Sabathia pitch any further this early in the season. "His next start, maybe that's a possibility," the manager said. "He did what we asked him to do. He got us into the eighth, and it was time to take him out." It was Sabathia's first quality start of the year, coming at a time when Girardi needs some consistency out of his starters. Now into their third time through the rotation, the Yankees' starters went into the game with a 5.53 ERA, the worst in the 14-team American League. Twins and the Red Sox starters have now fallen behind them. Unlike Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes over the weekend against the Angels, at least Sabathia didn't put the Yankees in deep holes. The game was tied at 1 on Tuesday when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and center fielder Denard Span were ejected during the third inning for arguing a called strike. The sudden heated argument seemed to ignite the Twins. Thomas took over for Span with an 0-1 count and Sabathia immediately balked baserunner Alexi Casilla to second. Thomas knocked in Casilla with a double. Seemingly ageless Jamey Carroll singled in Thomas. Only a great diving, skidding catch by left fielder Brett Gardner on Josh Willingham's sinking liner to end the inning saved Sabathia from further trouble. Sabathia said he wasn't rattled by all the tumult as first Span and moments later Gardenhire were tossed. "I don't think I was [rattled]," Sabathia said. "I just didn't make a good pitch to Thomas." The Yanks then scored four times in the bottom of the inning, knocking out Francisco Liriano in the process. That's when Sabathia decided to take on his warm weather persona. He credited pitching coach Larry Rothschild for making a change in his motion. He began extending his arm over the top of his left shoulder, giving more accuracy and pop to his fastball. "It just clicked," Sabathia said. "Everything felt a lot better. I was able to get the command down and get into a crisp rhythm." From there, Sabathia tossed a 10-pitch fourth inning and cruised the rest of the way as the Twins had only two more baserunners against him. "I just thought he started to find his location down and away better," Girardi said. "I thought all his stuff got better and he just started to make better pitches." There's no question that the Yankees' rotation is still a work in progress as they close out this homestand against the Twins the next two nights before heading up to Boston, where the Red Sox's pitching appears to be in real chaos. The Yankees have had quality starts now from Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda, who had a five-hit shutout going before he was lifted in the ninth inning in Friday's home opener, when the Yankees defeated the Angels, 5-0. That trio is a combined, 4-1. Hughes and Garcia have had two subpar starts apiece and are a combined 0-3. The Yankees are waiting on left-hander Andy Pettitte, who will make his next Minor League start on Friday for Class A Advanced Tampa at Daytona Beach, Fla. The 39-year-old veteran, who voluntarily sat out the entire 2011 season after missing most of the second half of '10 with a groin injury, is expected to toss 65 pitches, Girardi said. In recent days, the Yankees have been liberally using their middle relievers, which made it essential that Sabathia heat up and go deep on Tuesday night, Girardi said. Sabathia obliged and has now won 60 games for the Yankees since they signed him as a free agent before the 2009 season for seven years at $160 million. They extended him at least through 2016 during this past offseason. Unlike Girardi, Sabathia has no relevant theories why he pitches better during the summer months than he does in April. "I really don't," Sabathia said with a laugh. "It's just one of those things."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.