The big guy did exactly what he was supposed to do on Friday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. He stopped the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a team flying high after a sweep of the Boston Red Sox in the AL Division Series, on one run over eight innings. Against the best competition the rest of baseball has to offer, Sabathia was dominant. He allowed just four hits and one walk, striking out seven. The Yankees won, 4-1.
Cold, wet, windy conditions? No problem. Sabathia gave the Angels next to nothing. He was tough, he was steady and he was efficient. And through this performance, you could see clearly how much progress the Yankees had made by putting him at the top of their rotation.
Sabathia lives up to one of the best things you can say about a pitcher: "He makes the rest of the staff better." He takes on the opposition's ace, which takes pressure off the rest of the rotation. He eats innings all season, and that helps to keep the bullpen fresh. Maybe he hasn't completely transformed this Yankees team, but he certainly has lifted it a level or two.
In the six years since their most recent World Series appearance, the Yankees have spent a lot of money on other big-name starters. In some cases, they could have given the money to Bernie Madoff for all the good it did them.
Yankees fans can remember Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, a last chance to avoid the biggest blown lead in the entire history of the postseason. A completely used-up Kevin Brown was sent out to face the Red Sox. Brown surrendered five runs in 1 1/3 innings. New York was done early, and Boston was on its way to its first World Series championship in 86 years.
In 2005, in an ALDS against these same Angels with the series tied at 1, the Yankees gave the pivotal Game 3 start to Randy Johnson. Johnson will go to the Hall of Fame some day, but on this day, his destination was a very early shower. He gave up five runs on nine hits in three innings.
In the 2006 ALDS against Detroit -- the series at the very same point -- Johnson again was not up to the task. He gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings. In the ensuing, deciding Game 4, the Yankees called upon the highly disappointing Jaret Wright for the critical start. He lasted just 2 2/3 innings, giving up three runs, and the Bombers were eliminated from another postseason.
BETTER IN THE BRONX
|CC Sabathia entered 2009 with a history of postseason duds, but he has hit his stride with the Yankees.|
In 2007, the pattern was different for the Yankees, but the outcome was the same. In the ALDS against the Indians, it was a relatively young Yankees starter who was hammered. Chien-Ming Wang gave up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in a Game 1 start. Wang encored with a Game 4 start, which was once again not better than disastrous, as he gave up four runs in one inning of work. Wang finished with a 19.06 ERA for the series. The Yankees once again were sent home early.
These were embarrassing moments for baseball's most successful franchise. But now, the Yankees made a major investment in a man who seems to be capable of giving them a fair return.
On Friday night, Sabathia gave them that and a big lift in the process. His manager, Joe Girardi, variously described Sabathia's work as "tremendous" and "sensational." The opposition manager, Mike Scioscia, said that the story of the game was Sabathia's command of both sides of the plate and his ability to change speeds, and thus, his command of the Angels.
"He really pitched a great game for them," Scioscia said.
It hasn't always been like this for Sabathia in the postseason. Pitching for Cleveland against Boston in the 2007 ALCS, for instance, he had two losses. It was generally believed that he was putting too much pressure on himself, trying to carry the Indians.
Now, Sabathia said, he is "not trying to do too much." He has confidence that the Yankees will score runs for him, and that confidence has been well placed.
In the process of not trying to do too much, Sabathia has done a lot. For the second successive postseason series, he has set the Yankees on the road to victory. This is the job of a postseason ace -- to win the first game or the last game or an important game in the middle, to pitch as often as needed while remaining at the top of the game.
At $161 million, perhaps it is true that you get what you pay for. The Yankees, absent a true ace in their rotation for some time, have one now in Sabathia, at the very time when it matters most.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.