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It's a bit of a stretch to call the 125th game of any baseball season a must-win game, so we aren't going to say that the Yankees are doomed if they lose to the Indians on Friday night in Cleveland.
It's less of a stretch to say that it is as big a game as the Yankees have played all season. The division lead over the Rays is down to 2.5 games as Tampa continues to streak across the American League and leaves the impression that they're peaking at just the right time.
When you find yourself in such a situation, it's nice to be able to put some faith in the left arm of your ace pitcher. That's just what the Yankees will do on Friday when CC Sabathia returns from the disabled list after a couple of weeks away with an elbow issue.
Sabathia insists that he's got no limitations or lingering problems that will keep him from going out and throwing nine innings if that's what it takes to get the job done against his old team. We're not sure Joe Girardi agrees with the former and everyone is crossing their fingers about the latter because an injury that knocks Sabathia out for a third time this season would lead to panic about much more than this season.
It would lead to panic about all those expensive years to come on Sabathia's contract, a deal that seems a lot less prudent if Sabathia is dealing with an elbow injury. Durability has always been a big part of Sabathia's allure as a pitcher, something that sounds much more like a backhanded compliment than it is intended to be.
Sabathia's brilliance is occasionally of the Felix Hernandez type, but his greatest strength is his consistent ability to pitch deep into games without giving the opposition too much. Since Sabathia almost never has a disaster start, the Yankees can be fairly certain that they are going to have a chance to win every time Sabathia takes the mound.
After a couple of weeks of Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova (sent to the disabled list on Thursday with some conveniently timed shoulder woes) and David Phelps, you can't underrate how important that kind of assurance is to the Yankees. Nor can you underestimate how much more doubt will seep into thoughts about the Yankees' chances of going the distance if Sabathia returns without that same level of reliability.
The sun's going to come up on Saturday regardless of what Sabatha does on Friday night. Whether or not that's a good thing will have more to do with how Sabathia pitches.