Just five days ago, CC Sabathia took the mound at Tampa Bay with something extra at stake: the chance to win 20 games for the first time in his nine-year career. Even though the big left-hander insisted in the days leading up to the game that 20 wins didn't mean much to him, his reaction upon failing to reach the milestone told us otherwise. After Yankees manager Joe Girardi pulled him with two outs in the top of the third inning, Sabathia unleashed what might have been his best pitch of the night. Unfortunately, the object that Sabathia threw then was his glove, not a baseball, and he threw it at the wall of the visitors' dugout, not toward home plate.
Sabathia said then that he felt as if he had little command of his pitches, and that is an observation that he has often made in the past after he has struggled to perform up to his usual standards, as he did in his last three postseason starts before Game 1 against the Twins. In those three starts, all losses, Sabathia worked 14 innings, allowed 17 earned runs, 23 hits and 11 bases on balls. One popular explanation for Sabathia's recent playoff failures has been that he has been fatigued after a long regular season -- he is one of the game's preeminent workhorses -- and that's an idea that Yankees manager Joe Girardi discussed before the postseason. "One of the things that we tried to do in the month of September is slow his innings down," Girardi said on Tuesday. "We believe that's going to be beneficial." Sabathia, though, did not end up pitching that much less this September (and early October) than he did in years past. In 2007, he threw 38 innings and 523 pitches during the season's final month. In 2008, when he strapped the Brewers to his considerable back, he threw 42 2/3 innings and 653 pitches. This season, when the Yankees were supposedly taking it easy on him: 37 2/3 innings and 614 pitches.
While it might be possible that Sabathia's workload just happened to catch up with him at the exact moment that each of the last two postseasons were beginning, it seems unlikely. A more probable explanation is the other one that Sabathia himself has often offered up for his big-game failures: that he couldn't help but try to be too perfect on a national stage with something extra at stake, as he perhaps did just last week when he was gunning for his 20th win. In 2007, he was a member of the Indians, and knew that he'd have to throw a couple of gems to give his team a chance against the abundantly more talented Red Sox. He knew the same thing last season, as a member of a Brewers club playing the powerful Phillies. In each case, he tried to overthrow, to paint the corners of the plate, to impart on his breaking pitches some extra bite, and the results were miserable.
Wednesday night in the Bronx was different for Sabathia, and a lot of it had to do with the new team for which he plays. "The attitude I've taken all year [is that] I'm not going to try to go out and do too much," he said on Tuesday. The goal, he said, was to pitch just as he normally does -- nothing more -- and to rely on his club's powerful offense to carry him. He added that he felt as if his year of experience as a Yankee had prepared him to put his past postseasons behind him. "Some of those games we played against Boston [this season] were like playoff games," he said. "Opening Day probably felt like tomorrow night will. So I've had these experiences over the year. And I think I'm ready for it."
What the Yankees received on Wednesday was not an all-time great Sabathia performance, but a very good Sabathia performance -- and that's excellent news, for both the pitcher and his club, as a very good Sabathia is likely all they will need to advance past the Twins, and even further than that. Sabathia, from the first inning on, appeared to be calm and mechanically smooth, if not lights out. He allowed eight hits and two runs and though he at times seemed as if he were on the verge of yielding a lot more than that, he never did. His 6 2/3 innings and 113 pitches were generally effective, and that allowed the Yankees' offense to gradually build an insurmountable lead, as it usually does, and for the bullpen to close the door, as it usually has lately. "If you want to draw it up, that's the way we would have done it," said Joba Chamberlain, who recorded the final out of the eighth inning, after the game.
"Exactly what we needed him to do," Derek Jeter added.
The Yankees gave Sabathia a seven-year, $161 million contract last December, and while they're paying him as if he were the greatest pitcher of his generation (which he might prove to be), they don't need him to pitch like the greatest pitcher of his generation in order to advance deep into these playoffs. All they really need for him to do is pitch to his own career norms. That expectation seems to have helped Sabathia shake off his history of big-game failures, and now the odds look better that ever that his next chance to continue to do just that will come in the ALCS.
Follow Ben Reiter's up-to-the-minute thoughts on the MLB playoffs and more on Twitter: SI_BenReiter.