TAMPA, Fla. -- The weight of the Yankees' dark postseason was voluntarily stacked on CC Sabathia's shoulders, and the left-hander filled part of his winter by crunching the numbers. Five or six more wins somewhere in that schedule, he thought, and they'd have still been playing.
Sabathia still smolders that his campaign did not live up to expectations, and when it is suggested that the 2013 Yankees had many other issues, he dismisses the easy exit. It is the responsibility of the ace to lead the staff, a mantra that Sabathia takes to heart.
"After having a bad year last year and not helping the team, we want to get back to the playoffs," Sabathia said. "I think it starts with me."
Sabathia will have the ball in his left hand on Tuesday in Houston, marking his 11th career Opening Day start and his sixth with the Yankees, tying Lefty Gomez and placing Sabathia one short of a club record shared by Whitey Ford, Mel Stottlemyre and Ron Guidry.
He will do so coming off an encouraging finish to his Grapefruit League workload. With four scoreless innings against the Pirates on Thursday, Sabathia lowered his spring ERA to 1.29 in 21 innings. Over his last three starts, Sabathia hurled 16 scoreless frames with seven hits, a walk and 12 strikeouts.
"I've preached it for years -- you go as far as your pitching," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "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."
Trying to wash away the flavor of last year's career-worst 4.78 ERA, the 33-year-old Sabathia said that he was able to work harder this offseason. The results were immediately noticeable; Sabathia said that he reported to camp at 275 pounds, down from 315 a few years ago and back to his old Cleveland Indians weight.
While Cap'n Crunch cereal is no longer banned from Sabathia's diet, he said that he cut carbohydrates and had trainer T.J. Lopez increase the intensity of his workouts. The passing of a cousin, Demetrius Davis, from heart disease at age 45 in December 2012 served as a wakeup call for Sabathia, who wants to be healthier on and off the field.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has commented that he believes Sabathia looks stronger than last season, and there is truth to that. Sabathia admitted that he was not feeling top-notch when the Yankees broke camp a year ago, and while he was coming back from elbow surgery, he also believes that some of his rapid weight loss contributed.
"I didn't know that the weight loss was going to affect me that much," Sabathia said. "There were just some games that I was short [on energy], 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."
Sabathia is also in the midst of a transition into a final phase of his career, where he has accepted that his days of high-octane velocity are behind him, citing a big league odometer that is at 2,445 innings and counting. A fastball in the high 80s and the low 90s is going to be the new normal.
"I'm only 33 years old, but it's still my 14th season," Sabathia said. "That's a lot of wear and tear on your arm."
He has tired of talking about the radar gun readings, preferring to discuss his plan to challenge hitters and try to get swings early in the count. It is no coincidence that Sabathia spent a lot of the last 12 months talking with Andy Pettitte, even borrowing a cutter grip from the now-retired-again lefty.
"We talked a lot about this last year. CC's got everything it takes to be successful -- mentally, pitch-stuff-wise," Pettitte said. "When your velocity's not quite there, you've got to rely a little bit more on movement and command, and be able to change speeds and do different pitching. And I think he can do all those things.
"... He's too much of a competitor not to be successful, and he's got a great club around him. He's going to be just fine. The biggest thing for me is I'm trying to get him not to worry about it. Whatever the velocity is, it is. You can't worry about that. You've got to get guys out with what you've got."
Sabathia used this spring to rediscover his changeup, a weapon that the Yankees begged him to use more last season, when he had become slider-happy. Sabathia said that he never had a good feel for the changeup last year, but he threw it often during his winter workouts and has fallen back in love with the pitch.
He is also encouraged by the cutter, which Pettitte showed off a few years ago before continuing to encourage Sabathia to work the pitch in this spring. The cutter remains a fourth option for Sabathia, who does like how it has been pounded into the ground this spring.
"I know velocity can be important when you're making mistakes, but CC was a guy who had velocity that had really good command," Girardi said. "And if his command is there, he's going to have success."
With a contract that extends through 2016, the Yankees have already placed their big bet. Sabathia has something to prove, and his team is hopeful that he can stand tall as the head of a staff that expects its share of wins from Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda.
"I feel like I set the tone," Sabathia said. "We do have a great pitching staff and our offense has gotten better, but I do put a lot of pressure on myself to go out there and try to lead the staff."