The pitchers row at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa is along the left-hand side of the room as you walk in the main clubhouse door. This spring, there was a series of question marks running all the way down the wall: A.J. Burnett's inconsistency, Phil Hughes' inexperience, Bartolo Colon's durability, Ivan Nova's rawness, Freddy Garcia's sharpness.
They were all there, all in a row. Then you got to the corner, where the left-side wall met the back wall, and there was CC Sabathia. Big, sturdy and consistent, Sabathia is, as always, much more of an exclamation point for the Yankees than a question mark.
He starts on Thursday, another Opening Day for the Yankees. It is Sabathia's third, and he is one of only 12 players in franchise history to get as many as three. No one deserves it more.
Sabathia has been the Yankees' rock over the past two years, their old-reliable. Other pitchers have had injuries or battled mechanical glitches; other pitchers have gone to the Minors or been traded or released. Sabathia has never moved, taking the ball whenever it is his turn and staying on the mound as long as possible. It is what he does.
Now he has to do it during a year where -- unlike before -- there isn't an obvious backup behind him. There is no obvious safety net for the Yankees if something were to happen to Sabathia.
That hasn't been the case before. During the 2009 season, Sabathia's first year in the Bronx, A.J. Burnett -- his fellow high-end signing the previous winter -- actually pitched like something close to a No. 2 (ish) starter. There was also Andy Pettitte, the veteran lefty to whom Sabathia quickly attached himself as he got acclimated to life in the AL East.
Then, last season, as Burnett floundered, there was the combination of Hughes and -- again -- Pettitte, who yes, sure, was slowed considerably by a second-half injury but still made it back for the stretch run and the playoffs.
This year it is hard to see where the obvious support will come from. Will Burnett rediscover his form? Can Hughes pitch the entire season like the first-half Hughes of 2010? Can Nova or Garcia show consistency that would, on some level, be a surprise?
Of course. Any or all of those things could happen, and the Yankees certainly hope that one or more actually do. But none feel as certain as Sabathia.
The Yankees need that certainty this year, if only to inspire the rest of the pitching staff. Since 2007, Sabathia has averaged 19 wins, 240 innings and 214 strikeouts. He has been everything the Mets -- and so many other teams -- crave: A top-end ace, a stopper, a workhorse, a superstar.
Winning rotations have to have that. In two years with the Yankees, Sabathia has a 3.27 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP, and he has averaged 34 starts a year. The first season he won 19 games, the second he won 21. The first season he allowed 86 earned runs, the second he allowed 84. The first year he struck out 197 hitters, the second he struck out 197 once again. In terms of Yankee Stadium certainties, a good start from Sabathia ranked right next to overpriced parking. He was as much of a lock as there is.
Sabathia, of course, low-keys all that. He is uncomfortable talking about being the "ace" of the team and, as he has always done, prefers to talk generally about the Yankees' success instead of his own.
Make no mistake, though, he is the Yankees' most important pitcher. After a spring of looking at all the questions, the spotlight turns Thursday to Sabathia -- the Yankees' version of the answer.