NEW YORK -- Somehow, it has seemed to work out that when the Yankees desperately need a deep effort out of their starting pitcher, CC Sabathia's turn to take the ball happens to be on the calendar.
Sabathia prides himself on giving the bullpen a break, and the Yankees were certainly appreciative of that on Thursday. The ace struck out a season-high 10 over eight strong innings as New York defeated the Rays, 5-3, at Yankee Stadium.
"I'm always trying to go out and pitch well and get deep in the game," said Sabathia, who improved to 5-0 by winning his fifth consecutive start. "This has been a pretty good stretch for me. I hope I just keep going out and pitching the same way."
Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson homered to support Sabathia, who outdueled David Price (5-2) for the first time in his career in a battle of top-tier lefties. Rafael Soriano pitched a one-run ninth for his first save of the year, preserving the victory for Sabathia.
"That was the best game he's pitched all year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Sabathia. "I thought he was brilliant; he shouldn't have given up a run -- ground ball after ground ball after ground ball."
Sabathia seems to be the big man keeping the Yankees afloat in the tough American League East right now. He scattered seven hits, pitching into the eighth inning for the fifth straight start and retiring 14 of the final 16 batters he faced.
The two runs Sabathia permitted were of the unearned variety, as third baseman Eduardo Nunez had a rough night in the field and was replaced defensively after the fifth inning.
Nunez's first miscue set up Carlos Pena's first-inning RBI single; the second preceded Sean Rodriguez's run-scoring hit in the second inning.
"It was a tough night for Nuney," said Girardi, who suggested he may consider playing the utility man at fewer positions in the future.
New York grabbed two second-inning runs off Price to tie the game, as Granderson hit his team-leading 11th homer and backup catcher Chris Stewart knocked in a run with a single.
Cano delivered a crushing blow in the fifth inning with a go-ahead two-run blast, his third homer of the season, and Andruw Jones contributed a well-struck RBI double to pad the attack.
"That's what I want to do, is just go out there and help the team win the game, do the little things in the game," Cano said. "If you've got men on base, you just want to be able to drive them in."
Cano's recent surge is encouraging for the Yankees; he has homered twice in his last four games after a 63-at-bat homerless stretch, and he now owns an eight-game hitting streak.
"It just really changes our lineup because he's so productive," Girardi said. "He's dangerous any time he walks to the plate. We swung the bats extremely well against a very good pitcher tonight, and Robbie was a big part of that."
Thursday marked the sixth time that Price and Sabathia have gone head-to-head, but just the first time the Yankees have won such a meeting.
Price entered the night having allowed just one home run in 38 1/3 innings and had been unbeaten in his last five starts. Yet he surrendered two homers and gave up five runs on 11 hits in seven innings.
"I would say we were taking advantage of the fastball, because he's a guy that throws a lot of fastballs, especially for strikes," Cano said. "In previous starts against us, we were taking a lot of inside pitches for strike 3. Now you see a lot of guys today swinging."
Sabathia was swinging in a different way after the seventh. The 6-foot-7 lefty showed a great deal of emotion coming off the mound in the seventh inning after a strikeout of B.J. Upton, gyrating his fist wildly as he screamed.
Sabathia said that he had been upset by permitting an 0-2 single to Rodriguez that prolonged the inning and was venting from that, more than celebrating the strikeout of Upton.
"I was angry at myself for having an 0-2 count and throwing too good of a pitch, and letting Rodriguez get a hit," Sabathia said. "They scrap; they do whatever they can to get on base. It was just a bad pitch by me, but I was fired up to be able to get out of it."
The Yankees needed the deep effort from Sabathia with fill-in closer David Robertson unavailable after having pitched the last two games, including a deflating blown save on Wednesday.
Soriano was pitching for the third straight game, generally a no-no in Girardi's bullpen plan, but the skipper said that he was amenable to pushing Soriano because he has more experience in the role than Robertson.
Still, the star of the game was Sabathia, who once again gave the Yankees exactly what they needed and a little bit more.
"With the struggles that our rotation has had, he's saved the bullpen on most nights," Girardi said. "You can't say enough about that. He really changes the complexion of a couple of games, not just the one he pitches in."