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On Baseball

Sabathia’s struggles are a recurring theme

By Nick Cafardo
August 7, 2011

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Both mind-boggling and remarkable in the same breath. The Yankees’ best pitcher can’t beat the Red Sox.

This is one example of why baseball is so unpredictable. On paper, you had a mismatch such as CC Sabathia vs. John Lackey. Not only did Lackey outperform one of the best pitchers in the game, his teammates crushed the Yankees’ lefthander. It’s been that way all season, as it was all of last season. The Red Sox also crushed Sabathia in the 2007 ALCS. In Sabathia’s two starts while pitching for Cleveland in that series, the Sox pummeled him for 17 hits and 12 earned runs in just 10 1/3 innings.

If the Red Sox should meet up with the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and Sabathia can’t beat them, the pennant could be theirs.

Sabathia’s numbers had been imposing since June 25. He’d allowed just seven earned runs over his last eight starts. He matched that total yesterday in six innings, watching his ERA skyrocket from 2.55 to 2.81. He was 7-1 with a 1.01 ERA during the eight-game stretch, and 9-1 with a 1.76 ERA in his last 10 games since June 14. He’s now 0-4 against Boston (with a 7.20 ERA) and 16-2 with a 2.11 ERA against all other opponents.

He’s 1-4 in eight starts against the Sox over the last two seasons, accounting for four of his six losses this season. Sabathia had never lost four games to a team in one season until yesterday.

In 2009, his first year with the Yankees, he was 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA against the Red Sox, which included two scoreless starts. That was his finest hour. He hasn’t come close since, and if you’re the Yankees you have to be worried.

The Red Sox constantly praise Sabathia but you know down deep that they know they can beat him. That’s quite a psychological advantage. Sabathia, who blamed a lack of fastball command for his miserable outing, won’t acknowledge that maybe he’s beginning to know it, too.

Asked whether it might be in his head if he has to face the Red Sox in the postseason, Sabathia said, “I can see if I hadn’t beaten them in the last three years but I have, so that gives me confidence that I can go out and pitch well against this team. When I’m right I can beat anybody. It’s just one of those things.’’

Wonder why he picked the three-year time frame? Easy. Because he did succeed in ’09 and didn’t in ’07, and hasn’t in ’10 and ’11.

When asked about his fastball command the previous three starts, he said, “I can’t remember the last three times. Today I just didn’t have fastball command.’’

It’s awfully tough when you’re the staff’s only elite pitcher and you just can’t beat the rival. The Yankees’ loss puts the Sox back even in the standings on a day when Sabathia should have had a clear pathway to his 17th win and stretched his team’s AL East lead to two games. These are the games in which you expect your ace to earn his $23 million annual salary. The Red Sox do a great job scouting Sabathia. Advance scout Dana Lavangie has certainly found weaknesses that Sox hitters take full advantage of.

Sabathia didn’t struggle with his control, walking only one batter. He simply left everything out over the plate. Lefthanded hitters crushed him. Jacoby Ellsbury belted a three-run homer and drove in four of his six runs against Sabathia. Carl Crawford also had three of his four hits and knocked in a run against him.

It shouldn’t be this easy against a guy who has 16 wins this season, and who won 21 games a year ago.

“Everybody knows I throw everything off my fastball and it was all over the place today,’’ Sabathia said. “I knew it was tough from the start but I still have to throw and try to make pitches and get outs.’’

He called his pitch on Ellsbury’s three run homer “mislocation,’’ throwing a fastball down the middle. He said when he got behind early in the count he kept throwing his fastball to get himself back even, and sometimes left the ball out over the plate. It happened with Kevin Youkilis, with his double in the fourth, and a couple of times with Crawford.

Sabathia didn’t buy into the fact that the Sox are simply a bad match for him.

“This is a good ball club, great lineup,’’ he said. “They made me work and were aggressive and got me in some good counts. I’ve faced them a lot. When I’m right I can get anybody out. It’s just one of those days.’’

Yankees manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that perhaps the Red Sox feel confidence now in their ability to beat Sabathia.

“When you hit like they do they probably feel confident against anyone,’’ said Girardi. “That’s who they are and the way they swing the bat.’’

He wouldn’t buy that the Red Sox are a bad matchup for his ace.

“No, I’m not concerned about that. I look forward to CC any time he pitches against them,’’ Girardi said.

Really? Can’t blame Girardi for saying the politically correct thing. There aren’t many Yankees fans who would agree.

While his teammates said the right things in support of Sabathia, and while the Red Sox were respectful of Sabathia because of who he is, the bottom line is they own him.

The Red Sox know it. The Yankees know it.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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