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More mature Sabathia ready for ALDS

Mature Sabathia ready for ALDS

CLEVELAND -- The video is irrelevant.

All it would show C.C. Sabathia is a less-mature, less-polished version of himself. It would show a thrower who relies too heavily on his fastball and who is too easily rattled when an inning doesn't go his way.

To look at video from that Sept. 1, 2004, outing at Yankee Stadium -- the last time Sabathia faced the Yankees -- would do little to help him prepare for his start against them in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday night.

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"I haven't watched any video of that start," said Sabathia, who will be making his first postseason start since the '01 ALDS against the Mariners. "I've been watching video of them this season against lefties and tendencies they have. But I haven't really watched my last start against them."

Sabathia prefers not to focus on previous appearances against the Yanks. He is, after all, 1-7 with a 7.13 ERA in eight past outings against them.

But if one wants a telling portrait of how far Sabathia has come as a pitcher the last few years, look to his July 19, 2003, start at Yankee Stadium, when he was roughed up for six runs in six innings of an eventual 7-4 loss.

That game was memorable, because in it, Sabathia pitched from the windup, rather than the stretch, with the bases loaded and two out. Jason Giambi grounded a single up the middle, and all three runners came home, thanks to Derek Jeter's ability to get a headstart from first base.

Needless to say, Sabathia hasn't pitched from the windup with runners on since. And that at-bat against Giambi also stands out in contrast to the way he would attack such a hitter now.

"I think I'm a totally different pitcher than I was, especially on that day," Sabathia said. "I had Giambi up there, and I was probably throwing him 15 fastballs that he fouled off. Now, I can make an adjustment and maybe throw him an offspeed pitch there to get a strikeout."

It was midseason 2005 when Sabathia, in the midst of his most disastrous stretch of starts since his 2001 big league debut, began using his slider earlier in the count to get ahead, and his offspeed pitches more often to put batters away.

This year, the 27-year-old Sabathia's repertoire has looked particularly polished. He's had his most consistent and successful season, to date, going 19-7 with a career-best 3.21 ERA and career highs in strikeouts (209), strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.65) and innings pitched (241).

The Indians believe the '07 success dates back to the winter, when the club sent a personal trainer to Sabathia's home near Oakland, Calif., to ensure its ace would be conditioned to handle the grind of a full season. He had missed the first two weeks of the '05 season because of one oblique injury, and he missed most of April '06 because of another.

To further combat the problem, the Indians made an effort to pitch Sabathia every fifth day, reshuffling the rotation after off-days to keep him on that schedule.

"In '05 and '06, he seemed to turn it on in the second half," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "He and I talked in the winter, and I really felt that, if he could start the season not necessarily where he ended it performance-wise but close to that level, and then have the second halves he's had throughout his career, I knew it would be a special year for him."

It was special, all right. Sabathia joins Boston's Josh Beckett and teammate Fausto Carmona on the list of frontrunners for the AL Cy Young Award.

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By tying Carmona for second in the league in wins (behind Beckett's 20), ranking second in complete games (four) and sixth in walks-plus-hits per inning pitched (1.14), and tying for third in winning percentage (.731), Sabathia was the only AL pitcher to rank in the top six in all of those categories.

"I know you're going to ask if I think he should win the Cy Young," Willis said. "I'll save you from asking. No disrespect to any other pitchers that had great years in the league, but I don't think it's close."

Sabathia has been asked about the Cy Young throughout the second half. And he answered such talk the same way he answered questions about his team's inability to provide him adequate run support in August. All Sabathia wanted, he said, was to pitch for the Indians in the postseason. He never wavered from that claim.

"That was genuine," Willis said. "I feel like his teammates and coaching staff wanted him to win 20 games more than he did for himself. He wants to pitch in the playoffs and take this team to the next level and raise a World Series flag. That's why it's a different feel every five days, because these guys know how bad he wants that."

When the Indians were still nip-and-tuck with the Tigers in the division series race in mid-August, manager Eric Wedge called out his leaders to step up. Sabathia didn't have to hear those orders twice.

"You couldn't tell a difference when he walked out of the locker room, if he had won, 1-0, or lost, 1-0," Wedge said. "That's leadership, and that's presence. His teammates saw that."

The Yankees -- or, at least, what's left of them from 2004 -- will see a different Sabathia on Thursday night.

"Of course, he's much more polished now than he was then," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He goes out there and he's a horse, there's no question. They ride him all the way."

Inevitably, the question of advantages came up. Who has it in such a situation -- the pitcher or the hitters?

"If he beats us, they'll say it was an advantage for him," said Yankees shortstop Jeter, who is 12-for-22 in his career against Sabathia. "If we beat him, they'll say it was an advantage for us."

Said Willis: "In any other situation, I guess I would say the pitcher does. I guess I feel the pitcher does. But you look at the Yankees, you look at their experience, and they know how to prepare. I imagine they're going to see enough of him on a video recorder by Thursday that they're going to feel they've faced him."

Sabathia is watching video, too. But not from '04. He doesn't need to see that film to understand how much he's evolved.

"It's a new year," he said. "I'm a different pitcher now. So we'll see what happens."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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