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Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia finishes the job and comes up aces

Jim McIsaac

"Finish it."

That was Joe Girardi's message to his ace, his horse, his big gun, after CC Sabathia flirted with perfection, overcame a speed bump and carried the New York Yankees to three outs from a three-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians. He was at 102 pitches through those eight innings, but was charging towards the checkered flag like a freight train, so you'd have a better chance at absorbing and walking away from impact than telling the Big Lefty his day was over.

"When you get that close you want to finish," Sabathia said.

The New York Yankees needed all nine innings from their stopper. They were in position to sweep and playing a day game after a night game. David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan were all unavailable, the former two having pitched on consecutive days. Mariano Rivera was warming up with two out in the ninth, but it was Sabathia's game and his manager knew that he was not one to deny him the chance to go all the way.

"I told him finish it, go do what you've done so many times here and he did," Girardi said.

Many doubts over Sabathia's credibility or competence as a staff ace were put to rest last Friday when he pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts in a win over the Boston Red Sox. That was his first win in a month's time that saw him go 0-2 with three no-decisions and allowing eight-plus hits in three starts.

On a bright and pretty day at Yankee Stadium, the Big Lefty buried any lingering skepticism 10 feet under. Don't let the four runs on seven hits allowed fool you. It was Must See CC in the Bronx with Sabathia striking out nine Indians in a complete-game performance that boosted the Yankees to a 6-4 win and a three-game sweep of the Tribe. The Yankees (34-25) took the season series, 6-1, over Cleveland and have won 35 of the last 49 games against the Indians since the start of the 2007 season. And while pretty much dormant offensively against the rest of baseball (3.67 runs per game), New York has averaged seven per contest versus Terry Francona's crew.

Sabathia the ace has also returned and he was sorely missed. He authored his 36th complete game and 28th complete-game win, and 10th as a Yankee. Sabathia walked just one batter or less for the eighth time this season to improve to 6-4 and is a winner of two straight since getting roasted for seven runs in seven innings May 26 by the Tampa Bay Rays.

As well as Hiroki Kuroda has pitched to a 6-4 record, a 2.59 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, Sabathia is back firmly in his role as New York Yankees rotation ace. While toying with the Indians, he also retired the first 14 Tribe hitters.

"Throwing strikes," Sabathia said, crediting a more aggressive delivery on what's been key to his turnaround. "I feel pretty good and hope to keep this going and take it to the next step."

Sabathia opened the game with a 10-pitch first inning, the initial sign that he would own this picturesque Wednesday afternoon in the Bronx. The first 11 Indians batters failed to hit the ball out of the infield and Sabathia looked especially lethal in the third by striking out the side. His slider was absolutely devastating and his velocity, a big concern the early part of the season, hovered consistently in the low 90s.

"He was getting ahead," said catcher Chris Stewart. "He was throwing his fastball down and away or wanted to flip a curveball in there for strike one. It was huge getting that first strike and then he was able to throw some other pitches down there to keep them off balance and keep them in between speeds.

"I don't know mechanics, I know results. His fastball is better. He's throwing it down in the zone and to the corners. His two seamer's got a lot of movement on it. It's obviously a big difference."

Mike Aviles ended Sabathia's bid for perfection with a two-out single in the fifth, but neither pitcher nor catcher had considered the thought of making history. Travis Hafner's majestic two-run home run in the first landed in the second deck in right field and got the Yankees offense going. Following Stewart's laser-beam RBI single with one out in the second, Brett Gardner, went yard for three more runs to give New York its early 6-0 lead.

Working with such a large cushion, the battery's focus was run and not hit prevention. The complete game was the primary goal and if there's was a perfect game, all the better.

"It was too early," Sabathia said on whether he was thinking perfection. "I was still trying to get a feel for the game and trying to make pitches. I hadn't even realized it until after he got the hit. Everybody started clapping. There aren't a lot of Indians fans here."

Although Sabathia gave up four runs on six hits his next two innings, including Yan Gomes' two-run homer that spliced the Yankees' lead to 6-4, he responded by retiring six of his last seven hitters to preserve the victory heading to Seattle to begin a 10-game road trip Thursday night against the Mariners. Sabathia takes pride in going all the way, especially when he helps out a bullpen that's been overworked during a stretch that hasn't afforded the Yankees a day off since May 23.

It's also the time of year when he heats up with the season. Over the last three years, Sabathia is 13-2 with a 2.83 ERA in June, and 9-2, 2.14 in July. On this fine June afternoon, the Indians may have slowed him down a little, but there was no denying one most unstoppable with a solitary goal in mind, to finish baseball games. Those 28 complete-game wins make the Big Lefty the big engine that can once he's in rhythm.

"He's a guy who can get on a roll," Girardi said. "I look at the first couple of runs he gave up, they hit some well-placed balls. You give them some credit. They didn't hit them hard, but they didn't swing and miss, and they put them in play and ended up with some hits. But he didn't give a hard-hit ball up until the seventh inning, and that's pretty good."

Good enough to reclaim his role as staff ace.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC