Saturday, October 17, 2009

CC Brings The Heat

The calendar says it's October. The weather made it seem more like early December.

CC Sabathia, however, kept Yankee Stadium nice and warm.

Sabathia allowed one run on four hits and struck out seven in eight innings as the Yankees executed the game plan perfectly, beating the Angels 4-1 Friday in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

Since 2002 and including the '02 and '05 playoffs, the Yankees had been 33-41 against the Angels entering Friday. Game 1 was a total reversal of the roles between these teams.

The Yankees got brilliant pitching, big plays on defense and timely hits in erasing some of the psychological advantage the Angels believed they had. The Halos, meanwhile, played poorly defensively with a team playoff record three errors, labored on the mound and had but one big hit.

But in the postseason, everything starts with pitching, and Friday, Sabathia more than lived up to his billing as an ace and the $161 million contract signed in the offseason.

It was imperative for the Yankees to get off to a fast start in the series and that meant they needed Sabathia to come up huge.

He was dominant and efficient from the start, mixing a lively fastball that topped out at 96 mph with a sharp slider and effective change. He walked just one, had Angels hitters off stride and threw 76 of 113 pitches for strikes.

The only trouble he ran into came in the four when Vladimir Guerrero hit a one-out double that landed just short of the wall in left before Kendry Morales' two-out single brought him in. But by that point, the Yankees had already scored two runs and that would prove to be more than enough for CC on this night.

When the Yankees signed Sabathia to that huge contract last December, the only question surrounding him was his playoff resume. Entering the season, he was 2-4 with a 7.92 ERA in six starts. Most of that damage had been done in 2007 and '08, when he logged a huge workload in the regular season for the Indians and Brewers, respectively.

But those questions have been erased this year. After a stress-free September, Sabathia is 2-0 in his two postseason starts, allowing three runs, two earned, on 12 hits and one walk in 14-2/3 innings, while strike out 15. That's a 1.23 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. He's been dominant.

He has begun to capture the hearts of the city as the crowd began chanting "C-C, C-C" in the seventh.

In fact, the only question coming out of this night was whether Joe Girardi should have sent his big lefthander back out for the eighth inning. Sabathia finished the seventh at just 98 pitches and if the plan for Sabathia in the series simply was to let him pitch on full rest, then it would have been a no-brainer to send him back out for the eighth.

But because Girardi is still considering pitching Sabathia on three days' rest in Game 4 on Tuesday, the wiser course of action would have been to pull Sabathia in the seventh and not tax his arm any further. Rain may change those plans, but even if today's Game 2 is postponed, it's still possible Sabathia will pitch on three days' rest, going in Game 3 Tuesday so that he still can be available in Game 7 on full rest.

But all that remains to be seen. There was so much that went right for the Yankee Friday that's it's not worth fretting over that too much right now.

This wasn't a typical performance for the offense: 10 hits, eight singles and two doubles. In fact, Friday's game marked only the second homerless game at Yankee Stadium in 84 games. The other was June 18 against the Nationals.

But the fact that the Yankees didn't need the long ball to win this game just further illustrates how much more dynamic this offense has become. In this game the Yankees took advantage of every Angels mistake, got some productive outs and got enough clutch hits.

It started in the first when Derek Jeter led off with a single. Johnny Damon, breaking out of a playoff slump with two hits and two runs, followed with a single to left that sent Jeter to third. However, Angels left field Juan Rivera misfired on his throw back to the infield, allowing Damon to move up to second for the Angels' first error.

One out later, Alex Rodriguez drove in his seventh run of the postseason with a sacrifice fly.

Then things got bizarre and you knew this would be the Yankees' night. Hideki Matsui followed by lofting a high pop to the left side. First it looked as if third baseman Chone Figgins would grab it. Then it seemed as if shortstop Erick Aybar would catch it. Neither did. The ball fell for a single and Damon scored to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead.

The offense after that continued to work Angels starter John Lackey, driving up his pitch count, almost ensuring he wouldn't get through six innings. Through five, he threw 95 pitches and he ended up allowing four runs -- two earned -- on nine hits three walks in 5-2/3 innings.

Lackey, however, was fortunate to get through the fifth having allowed just one run.

Damon led off with a double and after A-Rod walked one out later, Matsui hit a double left to bring in Damon and make it 3-1. A-Rod, however, missed a stop sign from third base coach Robbie Thompson and tried to score on the play, barrelling into catcher Jeff Mathis, who held onto the ball for the second out of the inning.

I don't mind mistakes of aggression, but in this case, A-Rod has to know better. There was no way he was going to score. In addition, he gave the Angels an out at a point in the game when one more hit or one or two more tough at-bats likely would have driven Lackey from the game. Fortunately, it did not come back to hurt the Yankees.

The Angels, though, were in a giving mood, committing two more errors in the sixth. With two outs, Melky Cabrera walked and went to second when Lackey sent a pickoff throw into right. Jeter then lined an RBI single to center, where the normally sure-handed Torii Hunter failed to field the ball cleanly, costing the Angels a play at the plate and allowing Jeter to go to second for the Angels' third error. The Angels had made an error three times in a game only twice in the regular season.

That knocked Lackey from the game and put the outcome on the Sabathia and the Yankees' defense.

In the past, the Yankees typically would give away outs against the Angels, who would make all the plays on defense. Not on this night. It was the Yankees' turn to flash the leather.

In the sixth, Damon made a diving catch of a drive from Bobby Abreu for the first out.

Sabathia and Mark Teixeira then hooked up on a controversial play that first umpire Laz Diaz actually got right for the second out of the inning. Hunter dropped a bunt down the third base line that Sabathia fielded, whirled and fired to first, where Teixeira had to make a nice stretch to catch while remaining on the bag. The Angels thought the throw pulled Teixeira off the bag, and it was tough to tell if Teixeira kept his foot on the bag on replay. Photographs, however, prove much more conclusive.

Robinson Cano then made a sweet diving play in the seventh and once Sabathia got through the eighth, the game was essentially over.

Mariano Rivera has never blown a postseason save when he's come on in the ninth and that streak remained in tact Friday as he locked up his 36th postseason save, allowing just a leadoff walk.

Game 1 is in the bag, now it's on to Game 2.

Runners In Scoring Position
Game 1
3-for-12 (.250)
6-for-17 (.353)
Regular Season
419-for-1,543 (.272)

Up Next
ALCS Game 2
Saturday vs. Angels, 7:57 p.m., Fox (weather permitting)
Joe Saunders (16-7, 4.60 ERA; Postseason: First start; 2009 vs. Yankees: 1-0, 4.72 ERA, 2 starts)
A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04; Postseason: 0-0, 1.50 ERA; 2009 vs. Angels: 1-0, 4.26, 2 starts)

This game may be the key to the series. In both the 2002 and '05 ALDS, the Yankees won Game 1. Winning this game would give the Yankees control of the series and completely wipe out whatever psychological edge the Angels might have. Expect Jose Molina to start at catcher as it will be essential to get a big start out of Burnett.


rakeback said...

Sabathia has been dominant all year, and so its no surprise that he has continued that in the post-season. After the All-Star break last year he was the best player in the National League for the Brewers.

Aviv said...

Yet last year, he imploded in the NLDS. I think people really underestimated the toll all the high-pressure innings he racked up the regular season last year and in '07 took on CC in the playoffs. I think his stressfree September, more than anything else, is allowing him to succeed this October.