"This is what you come here for -- to get that opportunity to win a championship," Sabathia said. "It feels good to be in this position starting tomorrow, going out and trying to put that together. We had a great year so far, and we just have to keep it going."
Wooed last December with a seven-year, $161 million offer that instantly made him baseball's best-paid pitcher, the West Coast native quickly made New York his new home.
Sabathia relocated to a leafy New Jersey suburb and assumed a role as the Pied Piper of the clubhouse, organizing dinner outings and fishing trips, as well as gathering players to attend NBA games. He became more than one of the best players in the game; he became a teammate.
"He's been everything that you'd ask for," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The way he's pitched on the field, the way he right away in Spring Training came and brought the pitching staff together and the players together -- he's been everything that we've asked for and more. He is an ace."
After the regular season began, Sabathia quickly became popular for his on-field performance. The Opening Day starter also drew the honors of making the first regular-season start at the new Yankee Stadium, showing off his workhorse demeanor by firing 122 pitches against his former club, the Indians.
Though that outing ended in a no-decision, Sabathia had plenty of opportunities to rise to the levels the Yankees imagined he would. He happily took a backseat to Alex Rodriguez's theatrical return on May 8, but Sabathia wasn't overlooked after pitching a four-hit shutout against the Orioles that night.
"I think all of those moments have helped me to prepare and led up to this moment for this playoff game," Sabathia said. "Some of those games we played against Boston are like playoff games. That Opening Day probably felt like tomorrow night will."
Making deep starts his routine as an appreciative bullpen exhaled, Sabathia turned it on as the Yankees began to sniff October, opening a healthy advantage in the AL East. Sabathia navigated the gauntlet of the most pressurized months, August and September, by going undefeated in his 11 starts and becoming the unquestioned top man on the staff.
In those 11 outings, Sabathia went 9-0 with a 2.04 ERA, limiting opponents to a .198 batting average and finishing with 19 victories, easing the load on a lineup that hasn't had much trouble scoring runs all season.
Sabathia beat Minnesota in his lone start against the AL Central champs this season, allowing just one run on three hits in seven innings in a 10-2 Yankees victory at the Metrodome on July 7.
"There's probably seven or eight guys in the entire Major Leagues you really call an ace, that you expect to go out there and dominate," Mark Teixeira said. "CC is one of them. To have him on the mound for Game 1 of the playoffs just gives us a huge boost."
The second-half surge came as Girardi maneuvered to give Sabathia extra rest -- a luxury the left-hander hadn't enjoyed in 2008, when he strapped the Brewers to his back and made his final three regular-season starts on short rest.
"I feel good about where CC is right now," Girardi said. "One of the things we tried to do in September is slow his innings down. We believe that's going to be beneficial. Every time you go through the postseason as a player, you learn something about yourself and ways to handle situations better."
Last season, Sabathia was hammered in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, again pitching on short rest and lasting only 3 2/3 innings in an outing in which the Phillies' Shane Victorino got to him for a grand slam.
In 2007, Sabathia took the ball for the Indians' ALDS opener against the Yankees in Cleveland, allowing three runs on four hits over five innings. He walked six and struck out five but outpitched Chien-Ming Wang in a 12-3 Yankees loss.
The Red Sox belted Sabathia for eight runs in 4 1/3 innings during a Game 1 start in the 2007 AL Championship Series, and Sabathia said that should it come to that in the next round, he would love another chance against Boston.
"I pitched bad," Sabathia said. "If that happens, no doubt. But we've got a long way to go before that happens."
Sabathia doesn't have a great deal of other playoff success to lean on -- he's 2-3 with a 7.92 ERA in five career starts -- so the Yankees are hoping that the repeated breaks will ensure his strength going into October.
"That's what you play for, to try to win a championship," Sabathia said. "You go out and be the best performer you can. Hopefully, I can do that this year."