Sunday, August 23, 2009

Spotlight On CC

Make no mistake about it. This is a big start for CC Sabathia.

There is no way to understate it because the reason the Yankees got CC is for games exactly like this.

Sabathia will take the mound tonight against Red Sox ace Josh Beckett, looking to give the Yankees a dominant start and a series win in Boston that could all but lock up the division.

And the Yankees need it after A.J. Burnett's disaster Saturday in a 14-1 whitewash at Fenway that trimmed the Yankees' AL East lead to 6-1/2 games. It was the second straight poor start for the Yankees -- a rarity since the All-Star break. The Yankees are 26-9 in that stretch, having allowed three runs or less in 19 of those games, including two shutouts.

So, what the hell happened, A.J.?

In his previous 12 starts, Burnett was 9-3 with a 2.59 ERA and .220 batting average against. That includes 7-2/3 scoreless innings in the 1-0, 15-inning win over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium Aug. 7.

He sure picked a bad time for a clunker, allowing nine runs on nine hits, including three homers, in five innings.

He was flat-out bad. Burnett and Jorge Posada just couldn't get on the same page, but this wasn't about how Burnett and Posada work with each other. That's not an issue -- afterall, in that brilliant 12 game-stretch entering this game, Posada had caught 10 of those games.

No, this game was about Burnett's stuff. It just wasn't good. He couldn't make any big pitches to escape jams and lacked command of his fastball, which allowed the Red Sox's hitters sit on his curveball.

The result was awful as Kevin Youkilis had a big day with two homers and six RBI to lead a resurgent Red Sox offense.

What's disconcerting is that Burnett entered this season with a career ERA of 0.50 at Fenway. In three starts in Boston this year, he's 0-2 with a 14.21 ERA.

But there are two pieces of good news: Burnett will not have another regular season start at Fenway this year, and after his last disastrous start at Fenway, he began that 12-game roll. I'm betting this start will be nothing more than a blip and Burnett will finish the season strong.

Unfortunately for Burnett, he had no support from the offense, which was able to get plenty of runners on against Junichi Tazawa, but apparently had used up all of its big hits in its 20-run outburst the night before. Saturday the Yankees went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position after going 15-for-25 the night before.

That failure to get to Tazawa early allowed the rookie making his third career start to gain confidence and gut out six innings, allowing eight hits and two walks.

The Yankees' only run came on Nick Swisher's one-out homer off Daniel Bard in the seventh, making it 12-1.

That leaves the series up to Sabathia.

The Yankees got the big lefthander to be a workhorse and ace, a stopper. They survived a poor outing by Andy Pettitte on Friday because the offense was able to feast of even worse pitching by the Sox. Burnett was miserable Saturday and the offense couldn't pick him up.

Sabathia needs to be brilliant against Beckett.

CC shouldn't be counting on a whole lot of offensive support, but if he continues to pitch as well has he has in his previous four starts this month, that shouldn't matter much.

CC is 4-0 with a 2.35 ERA in four starts in August with opponents hitting just .185 against him. He is 32-9 in his career in August and win tonight would be huge.

Just to be clear, a loss would not kill the Yankees. They still would have a 5-1/2 game lead in the division and would be in control. But twice this season we have seen the Yankees wipe out a five-game deficit in a matter of two weeks, so the pressure would remain on the Yankees to keep the pedal to the medal.

But if Sabathia can give the Yankees a win, they'd have a 7-1/2 game lead with 38 games left (Sox will have 39 left). While that is not impossible to overcome, the odds of the Red Sox doing so would be long.

Consider: If the Yankees go just 19-19, the Sox would have to go 27-12, a .692 winning percentage just to tie. Since the All-Star break, the Sox (70-52) have gone 16-18. Also, we have seen no evidence all season that they are capable of putting together that kind of extended stretch. Boston's best stretch was an 11-game win streak in April and of its 39 remaining games, 17 are on the road, where they are 31-33. The Yankees (77-46), meanwhile, have the second-best road record in the AL at 36-28.

So the pressure is on CC tonight. Let's see the lefty go out and deliver a win.

Runners In Scoring Position
0-for-9 (.000)
303-for-1,148 (.264)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
87-for-329 (.264)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
238-for-876 (.272)
Vs. Red Sox
35-for-160 (.219)

Up Next
Sunday at Red Sox, 8:05 p.m., ESPN
Sabathia (14-7, 3.58 ERA) vs. Beckett (14-4, 3.38)

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