CC's game hits cruise control
Better-than-ever Sabathia one of few with shot at 300 victories
ST. PETERSBURG -- CC Sabathia turned 31 on Thursday and has never felt better -- even though he has to work on his birthday.
Year 31 greeted the burly left-hander with a Major League-leading 14 wins, a 2.64 ERA, 134 strikeouts and a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League Wild Card race.
"I feel great," Sabathia said Wednesday, the day before taking the mound against the Rays as a newly minted 31-year-old. "I'm enjoying it. I'm on the best team I've ever been on in my life. It's an exciting time for me."
Birthdays like these are a good time for perspective.
In CC's case, the most logical place for that is the wins category.
With 171 for his career, Sabathia is one of very few -- if any -- who looks to have a realistic shot at joining the hallowed 300-wins club. He's fourth among active pitchers in career victories and, since 1919, ranks 19th in wins before age 31.
Sabathia is on pace to win a career-high 24 games this year, which would give him 181 heading into 2012. That means he'd then have to average 17 wins a year to hit 300 by his age-38 season (2018), and 13 a year to do so by age 40.
Do-able? For a guy this good, who figures to pitch for a winning Yankees franchise for a long time -- whether or not he opts out of his current contract this offseason -- and only seems to be trending upward?
"I don't see why not," former Yankees ace and current YES Network commentator David Cone said. "Especially considering the fact that he plays on a team that scores a lot of runs. So if he continues to get proper support, he will win. The only way he doesn't win is if they don't score runs. That's not a problem here."
Scroll down the list of active wins leaders and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone other than Sabathia who has a good shot at 300. Roy Halladay, with 180 career wins, is 34 years old. In fact, no active pitcher has topped 200 victories, and none who's younger than 30 has reached triple digits.
No matter how much success you have in your first Major League decade, 300 wins is a gargantuan number; one that takes an unnatural amount of consistency, success and health to attain.
And it should be noted that of the 18 pitchers ahead of Sabathia in wins before age 31, only four -- Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Roger Clemens -- reached 300.
"That's so far away," Sabathia said, "and you have to be lucky and be on good teams and be healthy. I mean, that's just something you can't really think about or concentrate on."
Sabathia is only concentrating on the present -- which is easy considering how good it looks.
The Yankees' ace has won seven games in a row, sports a 0.45 ERA in his past five starts -- a span that has seen him strike out 50, walk nine and give up two runs in 39 2/3 innings -- and is 11-1 with a 2.11 ERA since May 19.
"It's about as good as it gets, what he's been able to do," manager Joe Girardi said.
His offseason weight loss has eased the tension on his surgically repaired right knee, his improved slider has made him deadlier than ever against opposing left-handed batters, and his experience has made his pitch execution nearly flawless.
The biggest reason why Sabathia could one day reach 300?
Some will say he's only reaching his peak now.
"I think he's better than ever," Cone said. "He's obviously extremely talented, but he's still cultivating his craft. That's the impressive part for me. He's still learning, still evolving."
The Yankees' rotation has, for the most part, exceeded expectations this season. But still there's this feeling of uneasiness that seems to overcome Girardi before most games, due to the fact that he simply doesn't know what he'll get out of his other starting pitchers.
Then there's that one day, every five days, when all is OK again. The morning coffee tastes great, the iPod playlist is on a roll and the ballpark commute is fun.
Those are the days when an ace pitches, and the fact the Yankees have a legitimate one makes their makeshift rotation good enough to pitch in the postseason.
They can't be sure if Phil Hughes' velocity will remain consistent, or if the good A.J. Burnett will show up, or if Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon will fade.
But Sabathia is about as sure a thing as they come these days.
He's Mariano Rivera -- except for about eight innings.
"To me, he's better now with age because he's learning," Rivera said. "He's to the point that he trusts himself, trusts everything that he's doing and trusts all his pitches. When you get to that point, nothing can stop you -- only God and yourself."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.