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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

For Yankees to succeed, CC must return to form

Following subpar campaign in '13, veteran lefty has been dominant this spring

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For Yankees to succeed, CC must return to form play video for For Yankees to succeed, CC must return to form

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

TAMPA, Fla.-- The Yankees on Friday night again saw the CC Sabathia they hope to see all season. Let's not undersell this thing. This is the guy the Yankees must have to be relevant in the American League East.

They've got an assortment of moving parts. Can Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira be healthy and productive? Will newcomers Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann thrive in the Yankees environment.? Can Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson hold their own at second and third?

If you look at this team from a certain angle, you see a club that's capable of competing for a division championship. Yet if things start to go south, if the older players aren't healthy and productive, if the magic disappears, it could turn into a tough ride.

Regardless of all that, there's almost no scenario for the Yankees to make a run at the postseason without a big, productive, workhorse season from their ace.

"Very important," Jeter said of Sabathia. "I've preached it for years. We go as far as our pitching, and CC has been our guy for quite some time. He's a vital part of the pitching staff. We expect him to have a good year."

Sabathia was good again on Friday, actually really good, in tossing seven shutout innings against the Pirates in a 4-0 Yankees victory. If you're counting, that's 12 scoreless innings in his last two starts, lowering his spring ERA to a nifty 1.59.

Wait, there's more. In 17 innings, he has allowed just 13 runners and has walked three and struck out 16. Best of all is how he's doing it.

Forget the radar run.

"I don't care," he said.

He hit 91 mph once and 90 a couple of times. Other than that, he was throwing his fastball in the 85-89 range. But that was enough because his changeup was tremendous, keeping the Pirates off-balance the entire evening.

He threw some sliders and cutters, too, but it's the fastball-slider combination he can ride back to prominence. As he recovered from knee and elbow injuries the last couple of years, he threw fewer changeups.

"Like I told you guys before, my changeup is the key to everything," he said. "I always want to throw more changeups than cutters and sliders. I was able to do that tonight and had success.

"That was a regular game-plan kind of mix, which I got away from last year. I have to use my changeup to be effective. When I got here, that was my second-best pitch, and I'm trying to get back to it."

Why did he throw fewer?

"Sometimes, you get certain lineups, and you feel more comfortable with another pitch," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He was having a hard time. He didn't have the feel for it last year, and I think that's probably why he got away from it. He got a little off-track with his mechanics."

Now?

"His mechanics have been great," Girardi said. "The action on his ball has been great. That's why we're seeing success."

Sabathia got 10 of his 21 outs on infield grounders, including a pair of double plays. He struck out seven. All in all, it was one of those performances that makes everyone around the club feel good.

"He threw well," Jeter said. "CC has pitched well the last couple of times I've been behind him. He got a lot of ground balls. It looked like he was hitting his spots."

As for Sabathia, he was bit more cautious. But cautious optimism is still optimism.

"If I pitch like this April 1, then I'll be happy," he said.

OK, then. He'll have one more brief tuneup before getting the ball on Opening Day against the Astros.

He hasn't allowed a run in three of his four appearances this spring, and even after his one bad outing, that against the Nationals, he said he was light years ahead of where he was at this time last year.

"I feel great," he said. "I feel really good. I don't think I had an outing like the last two in Spring Training in a couple of years. My arm is there. It's catching up. My delivery is there. It's the second year with this new frame I've got. My mechanics I'm able to repeat easily. So I feel good."

He clearly was stung by last season's struggles and especially by the speculation that after 13 seasons and almost 3,000 innings, he could never again be what he once was.

While that blazing fastball may be gone, he has such a high pitching aptitude and enough other weapons that he might still have something left in the tank.

"It's Spring Training," he said. "I do feel I have a lot to prove, but it is what it is. I wasn't right last year. I wasn't the same guy. I feel confident. I feel strong. Hopefully, I can just carry this into the season."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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