"I think you always want to try to avoid a sweep, finish a series well and play well," Sabathia said. "It was good to get a win today. That's an unbelievable lineup. We definitely worked harder than the final number indicates."
Jayson Nix slugged a two-run homer and Francisco Cervelli drove in two runs as the Yankees touched up Justin Verlander, picking up their second victory of the young campaign and completing their only regular-season trip to the Motor City this season.
"The only must-win you need is when you can be eliminated," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "But wins are important, there's no doubt about it. Wins in April are extremely important, just like May, June and the rest of the year. It feels good to win a game, and hopefully we can carry it over into tomorrow."
Sabathia is known for a history of slow starts in April, and he did not appear dominant on Opening Day, sparking some concerns about his velocity. He may still be building to midseason form, sitting mostly 88-91 mph on Sunday, but showed good command of his fastball and changeup in a 114-pitch performance.
"Today almost seemed like a little bit of a blah," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I don't know exactly why. I think the biggest key was Sabathia. He pitched really good. He threw other stuff in fastball counts, made good pitches, 3-2 changeups, backdoor breaking balls. He pitched really good."
Sabathia walked three and struck out four in the start. He pumped his fist and let out a roar after striking out Austin Jackson to end the seventh, a sequence that ended his afternoon, but said that his outburst was not one of celebration.
"I was really upset with myself," Sabathia said. "It's the seventh inning, we have a 3-0 lead and I went 3-2 with every hitter. I was just upset with myself for not making better pitches and maybe being able to go back out for the eighth."
Verlander entered the eighth inning but never appeared razor-sharp in his second start of the season. The Yankees touched him only in the second inning, when they scored three runs.
Cervelli doubled home Ichiro Suzuki with a well-struck blast to left-center field to put the Yankees on the board, and Nix barreled a changeup for a two-out blast -- his first home run of the season -- clearing the wall in left field.
"It's great. It feels really good," Nix said. "I haven't had a whole lot of success off him. He is who he is, you know? But every time you play, you always have a plan and a way you think you can have some success, and we were able to do that today."
Girardi said that he was pleased with the at-bats he saw all day from Nix, who finished 3-for-4.
"We've talked about, everyone needs to pitch in around here," Girardi said. "And that's what he's doing."
Verlander completed 7 1/3 innings, scattering seven hits, walking two and striking out four in a 111-pitch outing, before yielding to left-hander Phil Coke. Verlander said that even with a depleted lineup, the Yanks provided a tough challenge.
"I don't care who they got missing, that's the Yankees," Verlander said. "They have a winning mentality about them and they're going to find a way to win this year. You don't ever take anything for granted. As you saw, it was the bottom of the lineup that did the damage."
New York extended the lead in the eighth off Coke as Ichiro lifted a deep sacrifice fly to right field and Cervelli banged a run-scoring single to center field.
Kevin Youkilis ripped a two-run single off Octavio Dotel in the ninth to increase the lead to seven runs, and Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth inning in a non-save situation.
"CC came back and gave us seven strong innings," Rivera said. "It was real good, and we did the rest. At the same time, we needed to win today."
As the Yankees dressed for their flight to Cleveland, Cervelli said that he sees reasons to believe that the Yankees' fortunes are about to improve.
"We need days like that," Cervelli said. "When they can pitch like that, I know everybody can support the guys -- like Andy [Pettitte] the other day, CC right now. I believe this next week, everything is going to change."