TORONTO — The best way to put it about CC Sabathia’s right knee is this:
It hasn’t felt this bad in nearly two years, the big lefty said Tuesday night, after he lasted just three innings in his start and the Yankees lost 4-2 to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. And when pain in the knee forced Sabathia out of his Aug. 23, 2015 start, after just 2 ²/₃ innings, serious concern about the team leader’s professional future loomed.
Hence the somber expression Sabathia wore as he addressed reporters. And the reality manager Joe Girardi acknowledged when he said, “There’s concern there, yes.”
Concern about Sabathia, who is in his walk year at age 37 and will travel to New York on Wednesday for further testing on the knee. Concern about the Yankees, who actually rely more on this version of Sabathia than they did back in 2015.
Concern that this surprisingly fun Yankees season is still very capable of ending in disappointment.
“Right now I just want to pitch,” Sabathia said. “I just want to get out there and be healthy and pitch.”
Everyone in the Yankees universe wants that, as Sabathia has pitched to a respectable 4.05 ERA in 102 ¹/₃ innings this season. If that can’t happen, if Sabathia lands on the disabled list — a good bet, given everyone’s words and expressions here — then the team’s road to October grows tougher.
As their offense registered two or fewer runs for the fifth time in their last six games, leaving 10 men on base, the Yankees fell four games behind the Red Sox (three in the loss column) in the American League East. And every time the Yankees lose, they cede ground to multiple teams in the gridlock that is the competition for those two wild-card slots.
The Blue Jays, after all, raised their record to 53-59, and they’re very much mathematically alive, if clear long shots, despite having eight wild-card teams in front of them. They drew within four of the Royals and Rays for the second wild-card spot.
And even if Toronto fades, plenty of pests remain. With 51 games left on their schedule — and with the obvious stipulation that the race is fluid and the dynamics will change — the Yankees have only seven contests against teams more than five games out of a playoff spot: Four with the Mets, with two each at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, and three at Detroit.
That’s a paucity of layups during a time when teams in the hunt often benefit from myriad oases; last year’s Mets secured a National League wild card thanks in large part to capitalizing on a cupcake September.
“I think whenever you add that second wild-card team, it has become a lot deeper,” Girardi said. “So anything can happen in the last 50 games, so you have to continue to play well.”
They hope to have reinforcements coming in the forms of Greg Bird, Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks, and they ramped up in late July by adding starting pitchers Jaime Garcia and Sonny Gray and relievers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson, plus third baseman Todd Frazier. Nevertheless, the Yankees don’t emanate the vibe of an operation gaining strength. Rather, Sabathia represents the latest engine to sputter, with rookie Jordan Montgomery, just sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to manage his innings cap of 180, likely to be recalled.
“It’s just hard to land. It’s hard for me to finish my pitches,” Sabathia said. “It’s hard for me to get over my front side and finish the pitches. When I can’t do that, I don’t know where the ball’s going.”
The Yankees don’t know when, or if, Sabathia will pitch for them again. Rough day at the ballpark for Girardi’s group.
They’ll need a lot better ones, more often, to get to where they want.