By Tim Casey
TRENTON, N.J. -- The Trenton Thunder, the Yankees' Double-A affiliate, always welcome and commemorate special appearances from their parent club's players. In a hallway near its clubhouse, the team displays framed, game-worn jerseys of numerous Yankees who came here while recovering from injuries or preparing for the season, including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Bernie Williams.
Now, the Thunder can add another name to their list, although they were fortunate CC Sabathia was able to finish his start on Wednesday night. Shortly after 8 p.m., within minutes of Sabathia's departure with two outs in the fourth inning, the game between the Thunder and Portland Sea Dogs was delayed because of a heavy rainstorm, thunder and lightning."Perfect timing," Sabathia said, laughing. "To be able to get it in, I really wanted to face the hitters and not have to finish it up in the bullpen or on the side. That was a good thing."
Sabathia, on the disabled list since May 11 with an inflammation of his right knee, struggled at times in his second rehabilitation start. In 3 2/3 innings, he allowed five runs (three earned) and five hits, had two strikeouts, issued one walk and hit a batter. Of his 55 pitches, 33 were strikes. When Sabathia left after third baseman Rob Segedin's error, he received a standing ovation from the crowd of 4,552.
At 8:22 p.m., the lights at Arm & Hammer Park briefly went out. Four minutes later, several people's cell phones alerted them of a flash flood warning in the area until 12:30 a.m. Still, hundreds of fans hung around the concourse hoping for the game to resume, which it did following an hour and 41 minute delay. By then, Sabathia had already worked out and spoken with around 25 reporters who waited to hear from a player who could make a difference in the struggling Yankees' second-half playoff push.
Sabathia said he was pleased with his fastball but needed to work on his slider and changeup. He reached as high as 93 mph according to the stadium's radar gun, and he dismissed any issues with his velocity. He wasn't too concerned with his statistics, either.
"For me, it's just feel right now," Sabathia said. "Results will come when they matter. Right now, I'm just trying to make sure that I can give max effort out there and not feel anything and be healthy."
Before his injury, Sabathia was 3-4 with career-worsts in ERA (5.28) and ERA+ (76), although he had 48 strikeouts and 10 walks in 46 innings. He is expected to make at least one more minor league appearance before re-joining the Yankees.
With thunderstorms in the forecast for Thursday, the Yankees pushed Sabathia's second rehab appearance up a day. Starting for Class A Tampa on Saturday, he allowed two runs and three hits and threw 37 pitches in 2 1/3 innings.
Sabathia, wearing his familiar uniform number 52, pitched in Double-A on Wednesday for the first time since he started two games for Akron in April 2005 while recovering from a strained abdominal muscle. His last outing in Trenton came in 2000 when the Thunder were a Red Sox affiliate and their top prospect was Shea Hillenbrand.
"I think he took me deep, man, to be honest with you." Sabathia said.
No Sea Dogs homered on Wednesday, but a few hit the ball hard off Sabathia. With 21-year-old top prospect Gary Sanchez catching him, Sabathia yielded a single and double in the first inning. Portland second baseman Sean Coyle then had a sacrifice fly to deep centerfield to score his team's first run. The Sea Dogs added two more runs in the third as Sabathia allowed a triple and a double.
Sabathia was asked if he felt better after Wednesday's performance than he did following Saturday's start.
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I need to work on my secondary pitches a little more. [The] changeup was cutting, slider wasn't as sharp as I wanted it to be. We'll do some work on those things, but overall, I felt pretty good."
Despite Sabathia's early season struggles, the reeling Yankees hope to benefit from his return. They are now 41-42, having lost five consecutive games and coming off a three-game sweep by the last place Rays in New York.
The Yankees are missing two other starting pitchers, too. Ivan Nova underwent season-ending surgery on his right elbow in late April, while Michael Pineda hasn't pitched since April 23 because of a strained back muscle. General manager Brian Cashman told reporters this week that Pineda could return next month.
Now, the Yankees' rotation consists of two rookies (Masahiro Tanaka and Chase Whitley), a second year player (Vidal Nuno), a third year player with more career relief appearances than starts (David Phelps) and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda. Tanaka, signed to a seven-year, $155 million contract in January, has exceeded the preseason hype. He is tied for the American League lead with 11 victories and a 2.10 ERA, is second in WHIP (0.95) and has 127 strikeouts and 18 walks in 115 2/3 innings. The other four starters, though, are a combined 13-17 with a 4.56 ERA.
The last time Sabathia pitched for the Yankees, the Brewers homered three times off of him on May 10. The next day, he went on the disabled list. Away from the team for nearly two months, he's eager to show he can contribute after the All-Star break and reverse the Yankees' recent woes.
"It's been tough to watch, man," Sabathia said. "We've just been trying to grind, but it's always hard when you're not there and be a part of it. It's hard to watch on TV. It's hard to listen to. Hopefully I can get back as soon as possible and start helping the guys."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.