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CC making a convincing case for Cooperstown

MLB.com @MikeLupica

CC Sabathia first pitched in the big leagues in 2001 -- with a lot more fastball than he showed against the Red Sox on Friday night at Yankee Stadium, when he made a team showing the kind of stick the Red Sox have shown this season look as if they were swinging at butterflies. CC, closing in on his 38th birthday, did that, and even finished his night with a snappy fielding play to the left of the mound. And what he really did on this night, in a second act in New York no one thought he would have a few years ago, was pitch himself a little closer to Cooperstown.

When it was over on Friday and the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox, 8-1, at the beginning of a three-game series that effectively ends the first half of the season, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said, "[Sabathia] worked the edges of the strike zone." It was as apt a description as anything else we saw from Sabathia, who at one point needed just eight pitches to get through the top of the fifth.

CC Sabathia first pitched in the big leagues in 2001 -- with a lot more fastball than he showed against the Red Sox on Friday night at Yankee Stadium, when he made a team showing the kind of stick the Red Sox have shown this season look as if they were swinging at butterflies. CC, closing in on his 38th birthday, did that, and even finished his night with a snappy fielding play to the left of the mound. And what he really did on this night, in a second act in New York no one thought he would have a few years ago, was pitch himself a little closer to Cooperstown.

When it was over on Friday and the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox, 8-1, at the beginning of a three-game series that effectively ends the first half of the season, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said, "[Sabathia] worked the edges of the strike zone." It was as apt a description as anything else we saw from Sabathia, who at one point needed just eight pitches to get through the top of the fifth.

"He doesn't do it the way he used to," Paul O'Neill told me in the YES Network broadcast booth. "But he's still doing what he used to do."

Sabathia has reinvented himself as a pitcher. The analogy constantly used in New York and at Yankee Stadium is that someone who used to pound away at you with a fastball as oversized as he's always been now pitches the way Andy Pettitte once did for the Yankees. He's thrown his fastball just 18 percent of the time this season, the lowest percentage for any starting pitcher -- working in and out and up and in and low and away; working the edges. This really has become a portrait of an artist as an old man.

And when he hit Jackie Bradley, Jr. with a pitch in the top of the seventh with Mookie Betts, one of the best players in the world this season, scheduled up next, you thought Yankees manager Aaron Boone might take Sabathia out -- especially since he had now been through the Red Sox's offense three times. Boone left him in. CC got Betts to top a little nothingburger to his left, and got off the mound as if his knees aren't mostly shot and not carrying around the weight he always does, got the ball, got Betts at first, ran off the field and into a fine, loud ovation and moment at the new Yankee Stadium.

Somehow, this is Sabathia's 10th year as a Yankee. Everybody talks about the way Alex Rodriguez hit in the postseason of 2009, when the Yankees won their last World Series -- and their first one on the north side of 161st Street. But Sabathia was as much at the heart of that team in the postseason as anybody -- winning a game in the American League Division Series and two more in the AL Championship Series before he finally lost a game in the World Series to the Phillies. He had more arm then than he does now. He was the Yankees' ace. Somebody else -- Luis Severino -- is the ace now. But if the Yankees are going to win it all this season, almost a decade after they last did that, they need Sabathia as much as they ever did.

Aaron Boone was asked after the game if he thought about taking out Sabathia in the seventh, even though the Yankees were ahead, 5-1, at the time.

Video: BOS@NYY: Sabathia makes lunging play to retire Betts

"I felt like he was still good," Boone said. "The score had something to do with it. The way the inning was going, he still seemed like he was in command to me."

Then, Boone said this:

"He was great. He's been great all year. And this might have been his best outing."

Sabathia's record rose to 5-3, while his ERA dropped to 3.02. It wasn't so terribly long ago that Sabathia -- who got big money as a free agent before the 2009 season and received a big extension later -- was the latest face of what long, expensive pitching contracts look like for pitchers in their 30s on the back ends of those deals. It was less than three years ago that he decided to check himself into rehab for a drinking problem after a lost, end-of-season weekend in Baltimore. And there was concern, with him 35 at the time, that his knees could no longer support his weight.

Now, Sabathia has come back. There are comebacks and there are, to borrow an expression my friend Mary Carillo uses in tennis sometimes, "all-the-way-backs." CC hasn't come all the way back, but he is close enough for the Yankees. As he moves closer to Cooperstown, he continues to remind you why he has been one of the great pitchers of his time.

In the Yankees' clubhouse, Sabathia was asked about Boone leaving him in there to finish the top of the seventh and finish his evening in great style.

"Looking back," CC said, "he could easily have taken me out."

He was asked if he was worried about that.

"[I'm] not thinking about it," he said. "I'm in it."

In it, and still out there for the Yankees in a big game like Friday night's. Now, he sports a career record of 242-149 in the big leagues, nearly 100 games over .500. He's not just moving up to the edge of Cooperstown, the way he works the edges of the zone now. He's already there.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

New York Yankees, CC Sabathia