There is a significant difference between being a front-line pitcher and being the ace of a staff, as longtime Oriole Mike Flanagan once explained. There is an extra accountability factor because an ace embraces the responsibility of leading a rotation, absorbs innings to give relief to the relievers and rescues his teammates from losing streaks.
But being an ace goes far beyond wanting the ball; you have to have the ability to match another team's ace zero for zero, especially in a crucial game or in the postseason.
CC Sabathia has been an ace for a decade, and, in keeping with the creed of the ace, he famously ignored the risk of injury just weeks from free agency in 2008 to make starts on three days' rest for the Milwaukee Brewers. His willingness to shoulder responsibility was a driving factor in the New York Yankees' decision to sign him to a seven-year, $161 million deal in the fall of 2008, and to reinvest in him this past fall when they gave Sabathia an extension. He has arguably been the best fit of any free agent in the Yankees' history, giving them excellent return for the fortune they have paid him.
But, for the first time in Sabathia's career, there is a real doubt about whether he can swap zeros with the Verlanders and other great pitchers and shut down a great lineup.
Sabathia was on the disabled list last month because of an elbow problem -- the first time in his career he was on the DL for an arm-related issue -- and, although he has come back to make three starts and generally has pitched effectively, there continue to be rumblings around the sport that the discomfort that has nagged him most of this season still lingers.
Reportedly, Sabathia has no structural damage in the elbow -- no debilitating ligament tear. But Sabathia's recent performance and pitch selection suggest there is some other issue, whether it be a loose body or a spur in the joint. Sabathia's well-being is just one of many injury- and age-related problems the Yankees are coping with as they try to fend off the Baltimore Orioles. New York's lead over Baltimore in the AL East is down to one game, and the Yankees lead the Tampa Bay Rays by 2.5 games.
In his past three starts, Sabathia has allowed 21 hits and six earned runs in 21 1/3 innings, and scouts say his raw stuff is simply not as crisp as it was earlier in the year. According to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity in his first start off the disabled list was 93.7 mph, after his two-week break, but that was down to 92.1 mph in his next start.
More telling to the evaluators was Sabathia's choice to throw fewer fastballs and use far more off-speed pitches, most notably his changeup. According to FanGraphs, when Sabathia pitched against the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 29, he threw only 45.5 percent fastballs, one of the lowest percentages of his career, and 17.2 percent of his pitches were changes -- for him, that's a very high percentage of changeups, and it was noticed by rival evaluators.
"He can win with what he's got, and, on most days, he'll find a way to get the job done," one scout said. "But he's not going to dominate anybody right now. You can get some good swings against him."
Sabathia gave up six hits in the first three innings Monday, including a home run. After he absorbed those early runs, however, he did what all great pitchers can do, settling into a nice groove, changing speeds, and, when he departed, the score was 3-all. Sabathia gave the Yankees a chance to win.
Sabathia has logged more than 2,500 innings in the past 12 years and threw more pitches in that time than anybody else. Because Sabathia will always have the mindset of an ace, he'll continue to take the ball down the stretch in spite of how he feels from start to start.
But how Sabathia holds up, and how effective he can be, will be just one of many questions for a team that has had its lead sink from 10 games to one in the past 47 days -- including the loss to Tampa Bay on Monday, on a day when the Yankees' ace pitched.
Alex Rodriguez was back in the lineup, but the Yankees still lost, as David Waldstein writes. Robinson Cano didn't dive for a ball and that really hurt the Yankees, writes John Harper. On Monday, Cano was part of what ailed the Yankees, writes Ken Davidoff.
Jeff Niemann's season is over.
Baltimore added another left-handed reliever to its roster.
From ESPN Stats & Information: The Orioles' bullpen has been one of the best in baseball in the past month, thanks in part to the off-speed stuff. Three Baltimore relievers have among the lowest opponent batting averages in baseball in at-bats ending with off-speed pitches in the past month: Pedro Strop (0-for-16, .000 BA, T-1st), Darren O'Day (1-for-22, .045 BA, T-4th), Jim Johnson (1-for-14, .071 BA, T-9th).
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Medlen beat the Rockies:
A) Medlen was very effective with the changeup, striking out seven in nine at-bats ending with the pitch. Five of the seven strikeouts were on pitches that dropped out of the zone.
B) Medlen threw a season-high 77 percent of pitches for strikes (85 of 111 pitches), making it the fourth straight start Medlen has had better than a 70 percent strike percentage. With the changeup, Medlen threw only two balls on 25 pitches.
C) The Rockies couldn't get to Medlen with runners on base, going 1-for-8 with three strikeouts (0-for-3 with RISP).
Best opponent BA against changeup (since July 31, Medlen's first start)
Stephen Strasburg: .038 BA, 17 strikeouts
James Shields: .080 BA, 26 strikeouts
Kris Medlen: .091 BA, 18 strikeouts
From Elias Sports Bureau: Most consecutive scoreless innings pitched by an Atlanta Braves starter in a single season (since 1966) -- Greg Maddux (39.1 innings, '00), Medlen (34.1 innings, '12), John Smoltz (29.1 innings, '92), Phil Niekro (29 innings, '74).
From Elias: The Braves have won 18 consecutive starts made by Kris Medlen. That's the longest streak for a team since the Yankees won 20 straight Roger Clemens starts in 2001.
• Gordon Beckham chatted the other day about how much he looks forward to participating in the postseason for the first time, about how hard it is to watch other teams play while he's at home -- and, on Monday, he pushed the Chicago White Sox back into the AL Central lead.
From Elias: Carroll ended a streak of 1,348 consecutive at-bats without a home run, which was the longest current streak in the majors. Next on the list is Chris Getz of the Kansas City Royals (currently on DL), who has not homered in his past 918 at-bats. His last home run, on Aug. 9, 2009, when Carroll was a member of the Indians, also was hit at U.S. Cellular Field.
• Ben Cherington is among the very few in the Boston Red Sox organization -- too few, really -- who has uttered these words: It's my fault. The Red Sox lost again Monday, their seventh in a row. Bobby Valentine was not fired Monday, as Scott Lauber writes.
• There's no getting around the fact that shutting down Stephen Strasburg probably reduces Washington's chance for postseason success, but the Washington Nationals are equipped to overcome his absence. Ross Detwiler, their No. 5 starter, has had a very underrated season, and he won again Monday in Washington's 82nd victory.
Detwiler's numbers since the All-Star break: 61 1/3 innings, 2.79 ERA, 49 hits, 13 walks, 31 strikeouts.
Detwiler has answered the call, writes Thomas Boswell.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. The Indians' call-ups arrived.
Dings and dents
By The Numbers
From ESPN Stats & Info
6: Victories for Kris Medlen since joining the Braves' starting rotation.
51: Percent of fastballs James Shields threw against the Yankees on Monday, a season high. In his past nine starts, Shields has used his fastball 43 percent of the time.
164: Swinging strikeouts for Yu Darvish this season after getting six on Monday against the Royals.
NL West notes
• The Diamondbacks are probably just about finished after their latest gut-wrenching defeat.
NL Central notes
• A St. Louis appeal paid off.
NL East notes
AL West notes
• Yu Darvish excelled.
AL Central notes
Something worth noting in the standings: As the White Sox and Tigers have been grinding away in recent weeks, the two have not been able to keep up with the pace of the Oakland Athletics and other wild-card contenders. As of this morning, Detroit is 3.5 games out in the wild-card race. Keep in mind that the finishing schedules for Chicago and Detroit are much easier -- on paper -- than those for the Athletics, etc.
• At the very least, the Royals were able to avoid having a no-hitter thrown at them.
• The Cubs have some exciting prospects at the lower levels of their organization.
And today will be better than yesterday.