With Sabathia struggling to find his command in the first three innings, during which Baltimore got him for the only two runs he'd allow over seven frames, the difference in the game turned out to be defense. The Yankees made key plays and the Orioles did not -- yet another reflection on the season series.
A sharp defensive play by second baseman Robinson Cano kept a Nick Markakis hit on the infield and saved a run in the seventh inning, setting up Sabathia for his key moment of the game, striking out Luke Scott swinging to leave the bases loaded.
Left fielder Kevin Russo -- playing in place of injured Brett Gardner -- also made a diving catch on an Adam Jones line drive leading off the eighth, which may have been a big play because Joba Chamberlain allowed a double to the next hitter, Matt Wieters.
"Defense is very important and this club works hard at it," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Russo has not played a lot of outfield, and he makes a big catch. It's a different game if they have a run in, a double and nobody out. That catch from Russo really changed the game."
"That's what I'm out there for, to contribute to the team however I can," Russo said. "I'm just trying to react to it and catch it."
Garrett Atkins and Jones gave the Orioles an early 2-0 lead against Sabathia with RBI singles, which prompted Sabathia to try to fine-tune his changeup, knowing the Orioles had just seen him on June 3 in New York.
"You try to make a few adjustments," Sabathia said. "Facing a team back-to-back is tough. They came out a little more aggressive than I thought tonight, and I was just trying to mix it up."
Sabathia settled down after a visit from acting pitching coach Mike Harkey and kept the O's off the scoreboard the rest of the way. He said that his cutter and slider were big pitches for him, though he hung a few curveballs on the way to scattering nine hits, walking three and striking out eight.
"This guy is definitely really special," Baltimore's Ty Wigginton said. "His changeup tonight was absolutely outstanding. When you're going against a guy with a good changeup, you have to make him get it up in the zone. But at the same time, the guy has a really plus fastball that he can run up there as well. You definitely got to battle against him."
The Yankees got to Orioles starter Chris Tillman for three runs in six innings, one of which was unearned.
Curtis Granderson brought in a run with a fourth-inning sacrifice fly, and Cano touched Tillman in the sixth for a RBI single that tied the game at 2, part of Cano's third consecutive three-hit game.
"It feels great when you're hitting," said Cano, who leads the Majors with 88 hits and a .376 batting average. "You win and you get some hits. You have fun, especially when you know you're helping the team win games."
New York took the lead one batter later when Jorge Posada hit a ground ball that went for a fielder's choice, as the Orioles recorded a force out but Cesar Izturis threw the double-play relay past first base, allowing Rodriguez to score the Yankees' third run.
"Our guys just kept going at it," Girardi said. "We got some big hits when we needed it."
Posada worked an eighth-inning walk to chase Jason Berken and Francisco Cervelli got to Will Ohman with a two-out run-scoring single that gave the Yankees an insurance run.
Chamberlain pitched around a Wieters double in the eighth and Mariano Rivera pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his 14th save, as the Yankees again saddled the Orioles with a "L," having outscored their American League East companions by a margin of 65-29 this year.
"We talk about winning series, and that's what we concentrate on," Girardi said. "Obviously tonight was a very tough game and it could have gone either way. We were fortunate to be on top."