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No luck this time but no fear, either

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 31, 2011

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CC Sabathia might have won the game, but did he erase the perception that the Red Sox don’t fear him?

The chunky Yankees lefty pitched six laborious innings last night at Fenway Park and allowed only two runs but 10 hits in a 5-2 win. It seemed more of a case of the Sox shooting themselves in the foot with missed opportunities (16 left on base) rather than Sabathia finally dominating to earn his first win in five starts against Boston this season.

Progress, sure. But did Sabathia, who went only those six innings because his pitch count got to 128, engender any more confidence in his ability to beat the Sox in a meaningful game?

Hardly.

Sabathia’s win allowed the Yankees to improve to 3-10 against the Sox this season and pulled them within a half-game of first place. The three-game series seemed far more important to the Yankees than the Sox, two teams who are going to make the playoffs, simply because the Yankees needed to answer the question about whether Sabathia can beat Boston.

“I felt I had good stuff all the way through,’’ Sabathia said. “I had to control my emotions and make good pitches when I needed to.’’

Asked whether he felt he needed to beat the Sox, he said, “Of course, so you guys stop talking about it. It’s always a big game when you’re playing the team you’re chasing. Happy to get a win tonight.’’

Tonight the Yankees need to show they can beat Josh Beckett, 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA against them this season. And tomorrow night, A.J. Burnett, who has been horrible this month, needs to pitch well for a change. A breakthrough game vs. Boston would go far in improving the veteran righthander’s confidence.

The Yankees will take last night’s result, no question. It beats the alternative.

There’s still something that Sabathia will be going up against when facing the Sox. It’s the lack of a fear factor. Sox hitters still don’t fear the big man.

He took a 10-4 loss at Fenway Aug. 6, lasting six innings and allowing nine hits and seven runs, the most he’s allowed against any team during a season in which he’s 18-7 with a 2.99 ERA and in the Cy Young mix. He started the night 17-3 with a 2.40 ERA against everyone else.

He managed to ward off the dreaded fifth loss to the same team. No Yankee pitcher ever has done it.

There had been no logical reason why Sabathia couldn’t beat the Sox, a team with a plethora of lefthanded hitters he should have been able to conquer. Sox manager Terry Francona tried to be diplomatic earlier in the day when he said how much the Sox respected Sabathia, but added, “We’ve made him pay for some of the mistakes he’s made.’’

That’s the only logical explanation. They’ve made him pay. And maybe that was the difference last night. They didn’t make him pay.

For his outing to have been a complete success, Sabathia would have had to make the Sox fear him again. The only way he could have done it was to silence them in their own park. But 10 hits is 10 hits. All that shows is that the Sox missed opportunities and Sabathia was both lucky and also minimized damage.

Sabathia struck out Adrian Gonzalez with runners at second and third in the fourth, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia with runners at second and third in the fifth to limit potentially damaging innings. And that is precisely where Sabathia won the game.

“They had good at-bats,’’ said Sabathia, “but I felt I had good stuff, [better] than in my last four or five starts. You just have to give them credit, they’re a good lineup.’’

The win made Sabathia the second Yankee to win at least 18 games in his first three years with the team. Jack Chesbro won 21, 41, 19, and 23 games from 1903-1906.

The strange thing about this situation is that Sabathia is no slouch, in fact he’s one of the best until he faces the Sox. Then, at least until last night, he turns into one of the worst.

After the early August start, Sabathia dismissed the notion the Sox had his number and said he felt he could beat any team when he wasn’t making mistakes.

He made fewer last night.

There’s precedent for Sabathia pitching well against the Red Sox. It came in his first two seasons against Boston, when he went 4-1 with a 3.04 ERA. Sabathia was desperately trying to get back to that and he hoped he turned the corner last night.

The Yankees staked him to a 3-0 lead in the fourth. This surely was going to be the “challenge’’ manager Joe Girardi referred to. He needed to hold the lead.

But as soon as the Yankees scored twice in the fourth, Sabathia allowed a solo homer to Carl Crawford to right field in the bottom of the inning.

Saltalamacchia followed with a single up the middle, and Darnell McDonald also singled.

With two outs, Marco Scutaro doubled into the left-field corner to produce the second Sox run. The three-run lead became a one-run lead. The Sox again did not fear Sabathia. They came right at him.

But then Sabathia struck out Gonzalez swinging.

The Yankees added another run in the fifth. Was a two-run lead safe?

Not really. The Sox had runners in scoring position after a David Ortiz single and Jed Lowrie double. After Crawford lined to second base, Saltalamacchia struck out swinging.

Sabathia hit Jacoby Ellsbury with a pitch in the first inning, but he rebounded with strikeouts of Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia.

He loaded the bases in the second on a Lowrie single and two walks. But he got Ellsbury to ground to second to wiggle out of the jam.

In the third, the big lefty allowed singles to Scutaro (out trying to stretch it to a double) and Pedroia but did not incur any damage with Ortiz striking out to end the frame.

“It’s just the circumstances of the game,’’ said Pedroia. “Every game is different. Every time someone pitches it’s different. By no means do we think we have his number. He’s too good for that.

“He’s proven this year and in years past that he’s one of the best and we know on any given night he can pitch like one of the best against us. We don’t take anything for granted. We know if we get opportunities we have to take advantage of them before CC can get stronger and stronger as the game goes on.’’

“He got big outs when he had to and that’s CC,’’ Girardi said. “It was a big performance by him.’’

Big, but not convincing.

Even in a loss, the Red Sox feel they can beat the Yankees’ best pitcher any time. In that respect, nothing really changed.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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