CLEVELAND -- The champagne was still flowing that September day in 2001, when the veteran pulled the rookie over for a quick word of advice, from one left-hander to another. But what Chuck Finley said that day didn't initially register with C.C. Sabathia. Here was Sabathia, just 21 years old and in the midst of a 17-win season. His Indians team had a payroll of more than $90 million and six American League Central Division titles in seven years under its belt.
So when Finley told him, in essence, to savor the moment, because one can never be sure when it will come again, Sabathia was unable to comprehend just how true those words would become. "You don't really think about ever not making the playoffs," Sabathia said. "I didn't understand what he was telling me at the time." Less than a year later, Sabathia saw teammate Bartolo Colon shipped to the Expos for prospects. And suddenly, the young Sabathia found himself thrust into the role of ace on a team that was going head-on into rebuilding mode. The rebuild has since been completed. Sabathia is now a bona-fide No. 1 starter on a Tribe team that steamrolled its way to its first division title since 2001. Getting to this point, however, was not as simple as waiting for the sands of time to pass through and the Indians' number to be called again. In the six-year journey back to supremacy, Sabathia has learned not only about the fine art of experiencing sustained success in the big leagues, but also about the mental fortitude it takes to become a champion.
Indeed, the 27-year-old version of Sabathia that will take the mound for the Indians in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees is light years away from that kid who made his playoff debut (and lone appearance) in a 17-2 victory over the Mariners in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS. When Sabathia reflected on that fleeting October experience, in which he became the youngest pitcher to win a game in ALDS history, he remembered the not-so-foreign feeling he had on the hill. "I was pretty calm, actually," Sabathia recalled with a smile. Yet staying calm wasn't always Sabathia's specialty in his early years. Bad innings would unravel him, and bad calls would have him barking at home-plate umpires. And on one particularly memorable night late in the 2004 season, Sabathia punched a hole in a clubhouse pillar after a tough loss. Though his overall numbers from his first few seasons never slid into the realm of mediocrity, Sabathia was, nonetheless, having trouble living up to his ace billing.
American League Division Series schedule
|Wed., Oct. 3||6:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||3 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||9:30 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||6:30 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||6:30 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||6 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|* If necessary. All times ET.|
"On the field, I'd get frustrated," he said. "I put way too much pressure on myself." It was midseason 2005, when Sabathia's demons had begun to get the best of him in the win-loss ledger. He went 1-6 with an 8.08 ERA in a nine-start stretch between mid-June and the end of July, and the Indians believed he had begun tipping his pitches. To combat the issue, Sabathia began working with Tribe pitching coach Carl Willis on a new cut fastball for use against right-handers. And as the pitch began getting results, Sabathia began keeping his emotions under control. One can point to August of '05 as his definitive turning point. He's gone 41-19 since Aug. 1 of that year. And 2007 has been Sabathia's best season, to date. On a club that has been in or within striking distance of first place from the outset of the season, Sabathia has been a rock every fifth day, going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA. "I think he really feels confidence in all his pitches at any time," Willis said. "I read where Curt Schilling made the comment that he feels comfortable throwing any pitch at any time, and he's been in the league 20 years. C.C.'s been here a long time, but still, at 27, to have that type of confidence in all your pitches is tremendous." Equally tremendous, Willis said, is the effect the even-tempered Sabathia has had on his teammates, most notably 19-game winner Fausto Carmona. "On the mental side, we talk so much with all our guys of learning to focus on the things you can control and not focusing on the things you can't," Willis said. "I really think C.C. has been the poster child of doing that this year." Sabathia, who will be facing the Yanks for the first time since Sept. 1, 2004, has found quite a few wins slip out of his reach this season, through little to no fault of his own. He logged nine shutout innings against the Reds on June 10, only to come out with a no-decision. Sabathia went 10 straight starts from July 24-Sept. 8 without giving up more than two earned runs, yet he went 4-3 in that span because of a lack of offensive support. Although such tough luck cost Sabathia the opportunity to become the Indians' first 20-game winner in 33 years, he's never once complained and never once wavered in his focus on helping his club reach the postseason. "The way C.C. comes back, the way he handles himself, that impresses the heck out of you, time and time again," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "It's been a good three years now since he's been what you saw, just in regard to how he goes about his business." It's been a good six years since Sabathia received those words of wisdom from Finley, a player who reached the postseason with the Angels in his rookie year of 1986 and didn't get back until that '01 season. Sabathia might not have understood how wise Finley's words were at the time, but he certainly does now. "Throughout all the rebuilding, that's something that's stuck with me all these years," Sabathia said. "Going through the last few years, it really hit home." And when he takes the mound in Game 1, knowing full well that such starts are never guaranteed, Sabathia hopes to create a memory worth savoring.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.