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Sabathia completes transition from thrower to artist

NEW YORK -- Old baseball men love to talk about the subtle difference between throwing and pitching. Throwers, you know, they throw. Pitchers, on the other hand, pitch. See the difference? There's throwing and there's pitching. Yes, you're right, it can be a thoroughly baffling thing to understand.

But Friday night at Yankee Stadium, for once, I could see it. Anyone could see it. The thrower turned pitcher was CC Sabathia. He was ridiculously good. Sure, Sabathia has been good for a long time. But this was different.

When Sabathia came up to the big leagues, he was 20 years old, left-handed, and a thrower. Of course, that's not a terrible thing when you can throw really hard. He threw plenty good. He went 17-5 his rookie season and certainly would have won the Rookie of the Year award had it not been for a phenomenon named Ichiro Suzuki.

He was pretty darned good throwing the ball the next few years too. He won the Cy Young Award in 2007. He was pretty much unbeatable in the National League last year. He signed with the Yankees for a billion-jillion dollars during the off-season. He led the American League in victories (19) and he threw 230 innings -- he has thrown more innings the last five years than any pitcher in baseball.

But ... he also had his down moments. His postseason ERA coming into this season was 7.92. True, it was only four starts ... but hey, four postseason starts is more than most pitchers get. The sense from many inside baseball -- and observers on the outside too -- was that there might be something a bit unsturdy about Sabathia.

Thing is, all along the way he was making that subtle transition from thrower to pitcher, from talent to artist, from workhorse to dominant. Friday night, as he shut down the Angels, you could see that the transformation was complete. The Yankees won the game 4-1, and the background music was the cold weather and the howling wind and the Angels self-destruction on defense. But Sabathia was the show. It wasn't just that he pitched well. He did that -- 8 innings, four hits, one run, one walk, seven strikeouts. As Joe Girardi would say: "To pitch eight innings against this club and only give up one run, that's quite a performance."

More, he controlled the game with fastballs and sinkers and sliders and change-ups, all around the plate, all precisely where he wanted to throw them. He started the first five Angels hitters he faced with strikes. He did not allow an Angels leadoff hitter to reach in any of the eight innings he pitched. He struck out Juan Rivera with a slider down and in, struck out Vlad Guerrero with a fastball just off the plate, struck out Chone Figgins looking with a fastball over the outside half.

And in the seventh inning, with a runner in scoring position and the Yankee Stadium crowd chanting -- CC! CC! -- he struck out Mike Napoli with a change-up down and away. It was telling that in that tense moment, he felt comfortable and confident enough to NOT throw his 95-mph fastball but to instead pull back and throw the change.

"Commanded both sides of the plate," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, and this is pretty much the greatest compliment an ex-catcher can give.

Sabathia's precision would have been remarkable on any night -- but on a brutally cold playoff night in Yankee Stadium at a time when the Yankees are trying to get to their first World Series in six years, well, it's the sort of thing that will make New York fall in love.

"I'm just not trying to do too much," Sabathia would say after the game, and this is another thing that players and announcers say that doesn't always make sense. But with Sabathia it did. He knew it was a cold night. He could feel the wind blowing hard from left field. He understands that the Yankees are the best offensive team in baseball, and that Mariano Rivera is there to close things out in the ninth.

And so, he says, he doesn't try for strikeouts, doesn't go out thinking shutout and doesn't worry about stuff going wrong. "If I can just get them off the field and back into the dugout, you know, you have a good chance of getting a lead," he says. It's fascinating how the best athletes can build off the simplest thoughts.

It's only one game, of course. But for the Yankees it was everything that one game could do. The Angels made mistakes. The Yankees offense created chances. The new Yankee Stadium showed some of the magic of old. And CC Sabathia showed that he just might be unbeatable in this postseason.

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