"He got in a better rhythm as he got through the middle innings," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said of his starter. "I thought his curveball became a little more sharp, and more than anything, he stayed to the side of the plate he was intending to go."
Cecil got off to a rough start despite having a relatively solid pitching line in the end. He got through the first inning unscathed but then found himself in trouble during the second.
The 26-year-old allowed the first two batters he faced to reach base. Cecil then fell behind in the count 2-1 against left fielder Andruw Jones and hung an offspeed pitch up in the zone. Jones seized the opportunity by lifting the ball into the left-field seats for his 12th homer of the season.
That gave New York an early 3-0 lead, and it looked like it could be a rough night for Cecil. But he managed to settle down and escape jams in the third and fourth before retiring the final six batters he faced to finish the night on a positive note.
"Just one [bad] pitch," said Cecil, who lowered his ERA to 6.34. "It was a pretty solid outing. I kept the ball down for the majority of the game. Any time I wanted to step on a pitch, I stepped on it. Those were pitches that I wanted up, either up where I wanted them, or up and out of the zone where it didn't hurt me. I feel really good."
Cecil allowed just the three runs on six hits while walking two and striking out five. He limited the Yankees to just 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position while throwing 68 of his 108 pitches for strikes. It was a nice recovery for Cecil, who surrendered six runs in just 4 1/3 innings during his last start against the White Sox.
One of the biggest adjustments he made in between outings was to ditch the slider. The offspeed pitch had been effective for him in the past, but this year, it has caused more problems than anything else.
Cecil struggled keeping the slider down in the zone and out of harm's way since being recalled from the Minor Leagues in June. That eventually prompted him to have a conversation with catcher Jeff Mathis about at least temporarily removing it from his repertoire, which still includes a three-pitch selection.
"I just couldn't seem to get it down," Cecil said. "I have a cutter, which is essentially the same pitch -- the slider is just a little bit slower. I can see the point in having two -- [there is] a little bit more depth to the slider.
"I wasn't getting it, and I'm not going to keep fighting it during the game. ... For some reason, I couldn't get it down during the game. It's not something I want to work on during the game."
The score eventually got out of hand following Cecil's departure. Chris Stewart and Derek Jeter each doubled en route to a three-run seventh inning against rookie right-hander Sam Dyson.
Cecil's quality start was overshadowed by another dominating performance by Sabathia, who was making his first start off the disabled list. Toronto once again struggled to mount any type of offensive attack against New York's ace, who is 8-0 with a 2.49 ERA during his last nine starts vs. the Blue Jays, dating back to 2007.
Toronto was unable to capitalize on a leadoff double by Edwin Encarnacion in the second and a two-out double by Rajai Davis in the third. Those were the only two baserunners to reach scoring position in the first six frames against Sabathia.
Sabathia departed after a leadoff single in the top of the seventh inning. He finished his six-plus scoreless innings of work having surrendered just four hits and one walk while striking out six.
"I expect to pitch well," said Sabathia, who hadn't pitched since June 24 because of a left groin strain. "That's just me. Coming off not throwing in three weeks and having the All-Star break, I threw a lot of bullpens, a couple of flat-grounds and felt good. It feels good to be able to come off [the DL] and contribute to a win."
With the loss, the Blue Jays dropped below .500 (45-46) for the fourth time this season. Toronto has now lost three of its past five games and will attempt to avoid going two games below .500 for the first time this season when the three-game series comes to an end on Wednesday afternoon.