The great escape
Sabathia survives game-turning jam in series opener
Posted: Friday October 5, 2007 1:03AM; Updated: Friday October 5, 2007 1:14AM
CLEVELAND -- All night long, he had remained as granite-faced as his famously stoic Yankees counterpart, as cool as the breeze blowing in from Lake Erie. But when the big man bounced off the mound after escaping, Copperfield-like, a bases-loaded quandary in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the Division Series, he did so with an emphatic fist pump and a yell to the heavens.
"I was fired up," C.C. Sabathia, the Indians' ace, said after his grueling five-inning outing in which he allowed three runs, four hits and six walks in five innings. "All night I was like, just calm down. I was trying not to throw hard [but] I'd look up a couple times and see I was throwing 97."
Over most of his young career, Sabathia has been a yo-yo of emotions on the mound, prone to outbursts of exuberance and anger from one pitch to the next, susceptible to meltdowns at the worst possible time. But on Thursday night, despite lacking the pinpoint control that made possible his Cy Young-worthy season -- in 2007 he recorded the second highest strikeout-to-walk ratio by a left-hander in major league history -- Sabathia still showed why he has, in his sixth season, bloomed into one of the game's best hurlers, an ace that can carry a team through October.
As both Joe Torre and Eric Wedge noted after the game, Game 1 turned in the top of fifth inning -- the Indians up 4-3, bases loaded, one out, Jorge Posada at the plate, 3-0 count. Torre gave Posada the green light -- "We've got C.C. right there, 100 pitches, and have a guy who's hitting .330 all year long; it was an easy decision," the manager reasoned -- and the catcher swung at a fastball that appeared to be just out of the zone. ("I was surprised he swung," Sabathia later said.) Sabathia, who also danced out of danger in the first, then blew two 96 mph fastballs past Posada for the out. He then fell behind Hideki Matsui before inducing a popout to short.
Sabathia would be the first to tell you that a younger version of himself would have allowed the Yankees' juggernaut offense to blow the game wide open. "I've always been a hothead out there during games, way too emotional," he told me in late September. "That's me, that's my personality. Sometimes I unravel when things don't start going my way. But this year, the big thing I've learned is to control my emotions. It's a different me out there. I'm calm. I slow things down. It's just come with age"
Said Torre, of Sabathia's crucial fifth inning: "He bent, but he didn't break. You have to give him credit."
"That's the way he's been all year," said Indians catcher Victor Martinez. "Even when he doesn't have his best stuff and his control, he finds a way to keep us in the game and win. It was gutsy."
The Indians scored five times in the bottom of the inning, and even the most famous Yankee fan in the ballpark knew it was over. The prince of Cleveland, LeBron James, who proudly donned his Yankee hat during the game as he sat behind home plate, sheepishly removed his cap during the Indians' five-run inning. When Travis Hafner homered in the sixth to make it an 11-3 laugher, King James got up and headed for the exits. There were still four innings of baseball left, but the game was over.
In this much ballyhooed faceoff between two 27-year-old aces, The Big Man and The Quiet Man, Sabathia and New York's Chien-Ming Wang, the Indians put on a spectacular offensive show at Jacobs Field, as if it was 1995 all over again at the gleaming ballyard on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Now the Yankees turn to Andy Pettitte to cool off the Indians offense. Who has the edge in Game 2 is up for debate: Pettitte is an all-time great in October (with one more postseason win he will tie John Smoltz for first in all-time playoff wins), but Fausto Carmona (9-4 with a major league best 2.26 ERA since the All-Star break) is coming off the better season.
In his first tour with the Yankees, Pettitte faced the Cleveland teams of the 90s in October, but in a press conference before Game 1, he said of these Indians of 2007, "I really don't know a whole lot about these guys." Maybe that changed after Thursday night.