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Sabathia comes up big like the ace he is

10/13/2012 2:33 AM ET
By Joe Auriemma

(AP)

The Yankees needed a big performance from their ace starting pitcher in order to move on to the American League Championship Series against the Tigers, and that's exactly what they got. CC Sabathia was unbelievably dominant in keeping Orioles hitters off-balance all night, and more importantly, he finished what he started.

“Just being able to finish,” Sabathia said after the game. “The other day I got ahead of myself and left the pitch up to Lew Ford, and he got the double. And tonight I was trying to stay locked in, stay in the moment and make the pitch.”

Sabathia's complete-game four-hitter was masterful. For a good portion of the night, he was nearly unhittable. In fact, there wasn't a legitimate Orioles threat in the game until the eighth inning, and even then Sabathia buckled down and -- just like an ace would do -- limited the damage to just one run, preserving a 3-1 Yankees lead.

“He had to dig down deep and make some good pitches,” Russell Martin said of his battery mate getting through the tough eighth inning. “Big strikeout to McLouth right there. Guy has been taking good swings all series, and nice play by Jeter to get us out of jam right there with the bases loaded. Big pitching in a big time situation, and that's what big players do like CC.”

There was almost no doubt that he would try to finish what he started, even though he struggled through the eighth inning. The Yankees and Joe Girardi left the ball and the series in Sabathia's hands to it close out against the meat of Baltimore's order. He carved through Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters with ease to finish off the Yankees’ first postseason complete game since Roger Clemens accomplished the feat almost 12 years earlier -- on Oct. 14, 2000 against the Mariners.

“It was his game because he is our ace,” Girardi said. “Our bullpen has been worked a lot in this series, too. But I have a ton of confidence in CC. Even when he was going through some of his struggles, I knew he would get it right, and that's what he has done.”

This complete game-victory was also important in the fact that the Yankees are right back at it now on Saturday night for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series with the Tigers. And the bullpen arms will be fresh.

“There was no conversation; I was going out for the ninth,” Sabathia said after the game. “The bullpen, these guys have been working, really, all year, and definitely the last couple of games. [Rafael Soriano] had thrown two innings, and I wanted to go out and give these guys a rest, especially [because] we do have to play tomorrow.  But there was no conversation. I felt like there was nothing to say. After I got out of the jam in the eighth, I felt like I was going back out.”

Sabathia's dominance was evident early on the in the game, and he was pitching as if he wouldn't be denied. He put the team on his shoulders. The Yankees’ bats woke up just enough, after a rough series at the plate, to give him the hard-fought, yet easy victory. Even Sabathia's teammates marveled at his masterpiece.

“Player of the game,” Nick Swisher said of Sabathia. “He's our horse, he's our guy, and glad we had him on the mound tonight.”

“It's impressive” Martin said. “He was going up against a good lineup, and he just made pitch after pitch, and making hitters really uncomfortable in the box. He had all his stuff working for him today. When he's on, everyone saw it with their own eyes, he's pretty amazing.”

CC had what most would consider a down year by his standards. Being placed on the 15-day disabled list twice in 2012 almost stunted his ability to get into a groove. Throughout the big lefty’s career, there has been a portion of each season where he has been almost unhittable. That dominance wasn't present in 2012 until he got some momentum going at the end of the season. But he’s carried it into the postseason. Over his last five starts, including ALDS Games 1 and 5, he is 5-0 with a 1.51 ERA, striking out 44 in 41 2/3 innings while holding opponents to a .170 batting average.

“We have so much belief in CC,” Girardi boasted. “You think of what he has done since he got here. It's been an unbelievable run for him. He went through his ups and downs because of some injuries this year, but he's gotten it right again, and it's vintage CC.”

In a tightly contested American League Division Series and a season series that were split evenly through 22 games, runs were at a premium. He didn't allow the Orioles to take control or swing momentum back at any point. Baltimore's quality hitters just couldn't get anything going, being fooled pitch after pitch. His velocity even reached 94 and 95 mph at certain points, a milestone the fireballer has pretty much failed to reach all season.

CC finished the series with two of the three Yankees victories, throwing 17 2/3 innings and sporting a miniscule 1.53 ERA while striking out 16 and walking only three. The Orioles could only muster up 12 hits against him in the two games, sporting a .190 average. His 17 2/3 innings pitched are the second-most innings thrown in a series since divisional play began in 1995, with Curt Schilling throwing 18 innings in the 2001 NLDS.

“It’s what I am here for,” Sabathia said. “It’s what I play the game for. I guess I should feel, you know, a little pressure or something like that, but I don't. I mean, I feel like that every time out.  It can be Game 1, it can be Game 5, it doesn't matter. You know, I feel like I need to go out and win every time out. And I think that takes a lot of pressure off me, the outside pressure off me. I put so much pressure on myself to go out and perform well, that I expect it.”

For as much as he has struggled at times, Sabathia has been a big-time stopper in 2012. The Yankees needed him to bring that magic one more time -- after a loss -- in this pivotal Game 5 where the loser went home. He improved to 8-1 with a 2.48 ERA over the 11 starts he’s made following a loss this season, and the eighth victory was certainly the most important.

Sabathia, who was a huge reason why the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, improved to 7-1 in 12 postseason starts since joining the Bombers. They are certainly going to need this stretch to continue, as they will now face off against the Detroit Tigers, who have arguably the best hitter and best pitcher in the game, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

CC is a big reason why the Yankees are moving on in 2012, but the Yankees as a whole followed the league of their big horse and pitched truly one of the greatest series in the history of the franchise. In the five-game set, the pitching staff as a whole boasted a 1.76 ERA, which is now the single lowest ERA for a pitching staff in Divisional Series play. That type of pitching supremacy for a staff all starts with the authority of a staff ace, and Sabathia proved once again that if the Yankees are to win a world championship, they will have to do it on the back of their No. 1.

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