NEW YORK -- Through 22 and a half games spread over six months, the New York Yankees had not been able to shake the Baltimore Orioles. New York had won nine games against Baltimore in the regular season and two in the Division Series. The Orioles had also won nine games against the Yankees in the regular season and two in the Division Series. The Yankees had scored 103 runs against Baltimore. The Orioles had scored 101 runs against New York.
The gap between the season-long combatants was always very narrow and difficult to measure, but on Friday night at Yankee Stadium it was given an exact size: 6-foot-7, 290 pounds. Not coincidentally, those are the dimensions of Yankees ace CC Sabathia, who proved to be the difference in New York's 3-1 victory in Game 5, his second win of the series. Clearly, Sabathia is the biggest reason the Yankees will open the American League Championship Series on Saturday against the Detroit Tigers.
Before the game, all the talk was about Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees struggling third baseman whom manager Joe Girardi benched for this decisive game. After the game, A-Rod's name was as absent as he was. He left without speaking to reporters, but all anyone wanted to talk about was Sabathia anyway.
"Tremendous talent, tremendous warrior, tremendous competitor," said Raul Ibañez.
"Relentless, " said catcher Russell Martin.
It turns out this game was never about whether or not Alex Rodriguez was in the lineup. It was about whether or not CC Sabathia was on the mound.
"[This] is what I play the game for," said Sabathia, who went the distance and allowed just four hits while striking out nine. "I guess I should feel a little pressure or something but I don't."
Starting pitching, we are told, is what matters most in October, but that is only partially true. What really matters is great starting pitching, or, more accurately, great starting pitchers. In Sabathia, the Yankees have just such an ace. The Orioles, despite getting tremendous outings from Jason Hammel (twice), Yie-Win Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Joe Saunders, did not have the month's most valuable currency: a shutdown pitcher capable of taking the ball, and his team, all the way to the finish line.
"There are really only about six or seven true number one starters in baseball," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter after Sabathia ended his season. "And we throw that around very easily and he certainly is one of those guys that can make a difference in just a pure W or L."
In notching two of New York's three wins in this series, Sabathia proved again that he belongs in such elite company. Baltimore's starting pitchers averaged six innings per outing with a 1.05 WHIP and a 2.08 ERA, certainly high-quality pitching. Sabathia came within one out in Game 1 of pitching a pair of complete games and posted a 0.85 WHIP and a 1.56 ERA. Baltimore's starters were good. Sabathia was superb.
So much so, in fact, that Martin had to think for a moment when asked which of Sabathia's games was better. It was like asking a jeweler which rare diamond shines brighter. "Today," he said finally. "He was almost untouchable. He was electric."
Indeed, Sabathia gave the Yankees the jolt they so desperately needed after they often looked lethargic during Thursday night's 13-inning loss. Through four scoreless innings both Sabathia and Hammel dominated. Sabathia allowed just one baserunner, and Hammel none. But Hammel cracked just enough to allow single runs in the fifth and sixth. Sabathia bent in the eighth -- he gave up one run and had to wiggle his sizable self out of a bases loaded, one-out jam without further damage -- but he never broke.
In a postseason that has been dominated by great starting pitching, Sabathia's performance ranks behind only the shutout tossed by the Tigers' Justin Verlander against Oakland in Game 5 on Thursday night.
"That's why those guys are aces," said Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, who has been teammates with both. "That's why they start Game 1 of a season or of a postseason series."
Sabathia, of course, will not start Game 1 of the ALCS. Nor will Verlander, which means that this matchup could well be decided by the more pedestrian pitchers in each team's rotation.
There was a stretch during a late-summer slump in which he went 0-4 with a 4.67 ERA, that Sabathia bore little resemblance to the Cy Young winner he is. But after finishing the regular season with three starts of at least eight innings and no more than two runs allowed in each and following it up with a fantastic Division Series, he is clearly back to his award-winning self.
Never was that more clear than when Yankees manager Joe Girardi elected to leave him in the game in the eighth and then to let him go back out for the ninth. Normally, the ninth inning is the exclusive province of Mariano Rivera, but with the all-time saves leader sidelined since May with a knee injury, Girardi elected to let his starter also be his finisher.
Nick Swisher was so nervous he had Ibañez "in a choke hold," said the latter afterward. Ibañez wasn't much calmer, refusing to go get his hat for an on-field celebration until the final out had been made.
It didn't take long. Sabathia needed only 10 pitches -- bringing him to a season-high-matching 121 -- to finish his first postseason complete game and for Ibañez to need his hat.
The Yankees swarmed out of the dugout and headed directly to the mound where they immediately engulfed their ace. It was a subdued celebration both on the diamond and back in the safety of their clubhouse, where bottles of champagne were disposed of much more quickly and efficiently than the Yankees had disposed of the vanquished Orioles this season.
Partly that is because winning a Division Series is, according to the Yankees' championship-or-bust-mandate, not so much an achievement as a mile marker. Another day and another series await. If Sabathia is as stellar in that series as he was in this one, it likely won't be their last.