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04/04/12 2:00 PM ET

After three years, CC remains Yankees' rock

Durable, powerful left-hander to start fourth opener in pinstripes

MIAMI, Fla. -- Where would the Yankees turn without CC Sabathia heading their rotation? As the left-hander prepares for his fourth Opening Day start in his baggy Bombers uniform, they're glad they don't have to find out.

In a starting five that carried question marks into the final week of camp, Sabathia was their absolute certainty, to the point that manager Joe Girardi didn't bother with his usual ruse of holding back the Opening Day starter.

Before Sabathia's size 15 cleats were even unpacked at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees officially announced Sabathia would be taking the ball for Friday's season-opening start against the Rays.

"It's an honor to be able to start the season for the franchise and the organization," Sabathia said. "I'll be ready to go."

April 6: Rays 7, Yankees 6
W: Rodney (1-0)  L: Rivera (0-1)
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Sabathia, 31, has proven vital to the Yankees for many reasons, not the least of which is his durability and consistency. It was no wonder that the massive five-year, $122 million contract extension hammered out last Halloween seemed little more than a formality.

With that deal, Sabathia said he hoped to retire as a Yankee, and he very well may. His employers know they can count on Sabathia; he has led the Major Leagues in victories, winning percentage and innings pitched over the past five seasons, ranking second in strikeouts.

"It's hard to imagine our club without him and where we'd be without him," manager Joe Girardi said. "You need that guy you can count on every fifth day, that can put an end to a losing streak, that can carry a heavy load if your bullpen is tired, that gives you distance, gives you quality innings, gives you wins.

"Every good club has to have that guy; he has been that guy the last three years for us."

This week, as the Yankees played the Marlins in a dress rehearsal of their new Miami stadium, Sabathia pitched four innings in the game's inaugural big league contest.

Though he technically could have left at any time, Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova hung around and studied each of Sabathia's pitches. Nova said that he is able to learn from Sabathia, despite the fact that they throw with opposite hands.

"Everybody here does a lot of different things, but the fact that we have Sabathia in our rotation makes it so strong," Nova said. "It's not minimizing the other guys, but he's a guy that everybody knows. He's a guy that knows how to pitch. For us, and especially for me, he's a guy that you can learn a lot from. He's the best."

Nova called it "a dream come true" to pitch alongside Sabathia, whom he'd watched while growing up in the Dominican Republic, speaking in awestruck and reverential terms.

"I grew up seeing him pitching, him and guys like Pedro [Martinez]," Nova said. "It's CC Sabathia. My brother came from the D.R. last year and when he saw CC, he went crazy, man: 'That's CC Sabathia!' It's kind of funny."

And Sabathia has proven to be an asset off the field. In 2009, after Sabathia was bluntly told by general manager Brian Cashman that the club had a fractured clubhouse, Sabathia made it a spring mission to unite the club.

He became something of a Pied Piper to all corners of the Yankees' universe, organizing fishing trips and basketball excursions that brought the roster closer together. Sabathia was the leader of a uniting effort that continues to pay dividends to this day.

"He's one of those guys that seems to attract everyone," Girardi said. "His personality seems to attract everyone, and you can't say that about every person in the room. I think he does a tremendous job in our clubhouse."

For all the Yankees are certain about, Sabathia needs this 162-game schedule to answer some lingering questions. No one seems overly concerned about Sabathia's subpar spring; his 5.00 ERA in 18 Grapefruit League innings will be deleted from memory come Friday.

"I got ready for Opening Day. I'll be ready on Friday," he said. "Would I like to have had more success? Sure. But my pitches are doing what they're supposed to. I'm ready."

The Yankees hope they'll get the April through July version of their ace. Sabathia didn't seem like he was the same pitcher in the last two months of the season, going 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA in his final nine starts, and he wasn't able to carry the team in the postseason.

While Sabathia shrugs the slump off as "just one of those things," the Yankees took notice of Sabathia's expanding waistline in the second half as enough of a concern that the hurler was called to Yankee Stadium by Cashman and Girardi in November to discuss better eating habits.

Sabathia responded by dropping 10 to 15 pounds, boasting that for the first time, his listed weight of 290 on the back of his baseball card was factual.

"CC has never let us down," Cashman said. "He's the type of person that's fully committed, so I think the only hard part is to have those conversations. The easy part is watching him follow through."

With the ball securely placed in Sabathia's left palm every fifth day, the Yankees have just as much reason this year to believe their starting five will be in good hands.

"Coming off a year where everybody questioned our rotation, it's good to be able to have confidence," Sabathia said. "We need to go out and it's up to us to just pitch well."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.