Sabathia, offense tough in the clutch

Sabathia clutch in Game 1 win

CLEVELAND -- All week, the talk surrounding C.C. Sabathia has been about his maturity, his level-headedness, his coolness under pressure.

Those were certainly attributes Sabathia would go on to display on the mound in Thursday night's convincing 12-3 victory over the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS at a raucous Jacobs Field, albeit with a twist.

In the waning hours before the first pitch of the Tribe's first postseason game in six years, relaxation was not necessarily Sabathia's strong suit.

Hardly.

"He was so excited," said left fielder Kenny Lofton, whose four RBIs were only a portion of the impressive offensive display the Indians would stage for their ace. "I'm like, 'C.C., we've got time. The game doesn't start until 6:30 p.m.' He was so fired up about getting out there to start the game."

With a soldout crowd of 44,608 fans on hand -- many of whom were donning shirts of red and waving flags of white -- the game started with a bang. And a controversial one, at that.

Yankees leadoff man Johnny Damon smacked Sabathia's 3-1 pitch down the right-field line and over the wall. Initially, umpires Jim Wolf and Laz Diaz, positioned on the line, were unsure of a ruling. They conferred with the rest of the six-man umpiring crew, and a dinger it was.

All the build-up and all the energy that palpitated the ballpark were in danger of being rendered moot. And all that discussion of Sabathia's growth and emergence as an ace was about to be put to the test.

Sabathia was erratic. His pitches were elevated, and his command was shaky. He walked Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez with one out, and danger was on deck, in the form of Jorge Posada.

"I was fired up," Sabathia said. "I was trying not to throw hard, and I looked up there a couple times and saw I was throwing 97 [mph]. I was like, 'Calm down, and try to throw strikes.'"

Those inner monologues never amounted to much in Sabathia's youth. On this night, however, he proved to be a very receptive audience to his own speech.

Posada struck out swinging. Hideki Matsui grounded out to second. The inning was over, 33 pitches after it began.

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"He bent," Yankees manager Joe Torre said of Sabathia, "but he didn't break."

And that wasn't the only time.

After escaping that first-inning drama, Sabathia was handed the immediate luxury of a two-run lead his teammates eked out against Chien-Ming Wang in the bottom of the inning. All that damage came with two outs, as Ryan Garko and Lofton both grounded RBI singles up the middle.

When rookie Asdrubal Cabrera became the youngest Indians player to homer in the postseason with a solo shot off Wang in the third, Sabathia was staked to a 4-1 lead. Quickly, though, he gave that run back in the fourth, when Robinson Cano tagged him with a two-out blast.

It was the fifth inning when Sabathia -- and his teammates -- would prove their postseason mettle.

The Yankees, it was proved, were in no mood to go down quietly. And Sabathia, who had settled down considerably after that rough first, proved he was anything but out of the woods. Pinch-hitter Shelly Duncan led off with a single and Damon walked, setting up Abreu's one-out double that cut the Tribe's lead to 4-3.

With Sabathia's pitch count beyond the 100 mark, this, clearly, would be the telltale inning of his outing. He heightened the pressure of the situation by intentionally walking Rodriguez to load the bases. One base hit, and the Yankees would take over.

That hit never came.

Sabathia fell behind 3-0 to Posada. But on a pitch that bordered the inside edge of the plate, Posada swung away and fouled it off.

"I don't know if it was a strike or ball," Sabathia said. "But he swung, fouled it off, and it helped me out huge."

With new life, Sabathia refocused on working the zone, and he got Posada to go down swinging on a 96-mph fastball. The crowd erupted, just as it would a few moments later, when Matsui popped out to short to end the inning.

"For [Sabathia] to buckle down and get through that," manager Eric Wedge said, "that was the turning point of the game for us."

Sabathia's five-inning outing was complete, but he had left his mark. This, definitively, was a game that could have unraveled on him, and, in fact, likely would have unraveled on him back in the day.

"If you look at that first inning and that fifth inning, you can't let it domino on you," Wedge said. "When things are getting a little bit crazy, that's when you need to be the coolest cat in the house."

Sabathia was certainly that, though he obviously owed a debt to an offense that erupted on Wang in the bottom of the fifth. Victor Martinez lifted a two-run homer to right-center field, and Lofton came through with another two-out, run-scoring single up the middle to make it 7-3. Torre went to reliever Ross Ohlendorf, and Casey Blake knocked in two more runs with a double down the right-field line.

That would be the ballgame, though you wouldn't know it from the way the Indians kept tacking on runs with solo shots from Travis Hafner and Garko down the stretch.

But this tone-setting victory, which should erase all that emphasis on the Yankees' 6-0 record against the Tribe in the regular season, had its own tone set through Sabathia's ability to plow through his own lack of command.

"When you have that type of ability and you've had the year and the career he's had," Wedge said, "there's every reason in the world for him to be that confident and to show that poise out there. I think that's what you saw."

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