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Since he joined the Yankees in 2009, CC Sabathia has routinely carried the Yankees rotation on his broad back through the regular season and into the playoffs.
In 2009, his playoff work was good enough to help the Yankees to a title. In 2010 and 2011, though, the weight of Sabathia's work seemed to take its toll on his left arm by the time October rolled around and the Yankees were left with something less than an ace in their biggest games of the year.
History seemed to be repeating itself this year when Sabathia came off the disabled list in August and looked like a diminished pitcher. He threw four bad starts in a row, helping to make a tight situation with the Orioles a little more uncomfortable and calling into question the point of any pennant race if the Yankees didn't have a top pitcher to front their rotation.
That question can be put on ice. Sabathia pitched eight excellent innings again on Wednesday in Minnesota, winning for the second straight time and keeping the Yankees 1.5 games ahead on the Orioles heading into Thursday's off day for Baltimore that gives the Yankees to round out their lead to two full games for the first time in ages.
If Sabathia had just finished with allowing two runs in eight innings, it would have been good enough even if the argument could be made that beating the Twins with such numbers isn't necessarily indicative of a pitcher capable of greatness. Watching Sabathia actually pitch, especially when he struck out Joe Mauer three times on nine total pitches, told a different story.
It was the story of the dominant Sabathia that the Yankees were so scared of losing that they dropped a big new contract on him just three years after they first lavished him with all the riches of the land. And it might be the story of a guy who is destined to keep it going because of how much less work he's had to do to get to this point in the season.
Sabathia has thrown 192 innings this season, which means he'll wind up throwing his fewest regular season innings since 2006 and, it appears, enter October with a fresher, livelier arm than he has in the last two years. At the very least, it's a livelier arm than he had earlier this month and that means we've probably heard the last of Hiroki Kuroda starting the team's first postseason game.
All that time off provided by two disabled list visits in a short span might have temporarily made Sabathia a lesser pitcher because of the toll they took on his legs, but the flip side may be that he's going to be peaking at exactly the right time now that he's got his legs back underneath him. That's not bad as far as silver linings for injuries to your best pitcher go.
Even as the division lead remains slim, the return of Andy Pettitte and return to form for Sabathia have changed the picture for the Yankees in the last two trips through the rotation. Good pitching is essential for any playoff hopes and the Yankees' chances of getting it feels a lot better today than it did a couple of weeks ago.
Throw in some timely hitting -- Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Chris Dickerson all had run-scoring hits with runners in scoring position -- and you've got the makings of a pretty good formula for making noise once the playoffs roll around. The Orioles must still be dealt with, of course, but there's a renewed optimism in the skies over the Yankees with the end of the season in sight.