3 to Watch: The 'CC is needed -- now' edition

The Yankees need Sabathia on the mound, not watching in the dugout. (Getty Images)

When CC Sabathia went on the disabled list the first time, it seemed that the only thing that really mattered for the Yankees was that he would be healthy for the playoffs.

When Sabathia went on the DL for the second time, that still seemed true. The Yankees insisted that Sabathia's elbow injury wasn't serious, and that they were just being cautious.

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It was hard to blame them. They were going to win the American League East. Having a healthy Sabathia for the playoffs was all that really mattered.

Things change.

The AL East standings have changed. Sabathia is due to return Friday night, and the Yankees need him -- not just to be healthy for the playoffs, but to help assure that they arrive there as AL East champions.

The Yankees, who once led the division by 10 games and still led it by six games as of last week, saw their lead shrink to three games on Wednesday night. By the time Sabathia takes the mound Friday against the Indians, it could be as small as 2 1/2 games.

It's a real challenge, because the Rays are good, and the Rays are hot. It's a real issue, because this year the wild-card teams face a one-game play-in.

If Sabathia has more trouble, or if his elbow keeps him from pitching to his accustomed level, it's a real problem for the Yankees -- and not just for October. Ivan Nova has a sore shoulder, Andy Pettitte's recovery has been slow and Phil Hughes has been inconsistent.

It would still take a Red Sox-like collapse for the Yankees to miss the playoffs altogether. But the Red Sox collapse was built in large part on a collapsing rotation.

The Yankee rotation isn't in nearly as bad shape. If Sabathia isn't healthy, though . . .

The Yankees would rather not think about that.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. If Sabathia is indeed as healthy as he claims, he shouldn't have much trouble with the Indians, who are going through their own collapse. Back when the Yankees held a 10-game lead in the East, the Indians were three games over .500, and only three games back in the Central. They've lost 26 of 33 since then, including 21 of the last 25, heading into Yankees at Indians, Friday night (7:05 ET) at Progressive Field. The Yankees just lost three straight to the White Sox in Chicago, but they have Sabathia going Friday, and Hiroki Kuroda (who pitched like an ace in Sabathia's absence) starting Saturday.

2. Matt Moore was a popular preseason pick for Rookie of the Year, but it's clear now he won't win it (have you heard of a guy named Trout?). Moore doesn't even have as low an ERA as Jarrod Parker, the rookie he'll face in A's at Rays, Friday night (7:10 ET) at Tropicana Field. But like his Rays team, Moore has been hot lately, with a 4-0 record and 1.16 ERA in five starts since July 28. The A's-Rays series is an interesting one, with both teams in the race. It's also an unusual one, running from Thursday to Saturday and taking Sunday off, to accommodate the Republican convention.

3. The Nationals fully expected to be in contention this year. They were right about that. They expected that the Phillies would be the team they would need to beat. They were wrong about that. But they do need to beat them this weekend, and they'll still see the Phillies as dangerous, particularly when they face Roy Halladay in Nationals at Phillies, Saturday night (7:05 ET) at Citizens Bank Park. The Nationals finally beat Halladay in May, for the first time since 2002, when they were still the Expos and he was just getting to be good. Things have changed since then, but they've also changed since last year. Halladay hasn't always been dominant this season, and it's Gio Gonzalez, Saturday's Nationals starter, who has a chance to be a 20-game winner. In two starts against the Phillies this year, Gonzalez is 2-0 and has allowed just one run in 13 innings.

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