CC Sabathia comes up big for Yankees

Russell Martin led off the ninth inning with a tiebreaking home run, and CC Sabathia turned in a sparkling pitching performance as the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 7-2 Sunday night in the opener of their AL divisional series. AP video. (Oct. 8)

BALTIMORE

He would have none of it. Magic, mojo, whatever word the Orioles are using these days to explain their inexplicable romp into October. All that concerned CC Sabathia when he took the mound for Sunday night's Game 1 of the ALDS was ending it.

And that's what Sabathia did.

Russell Martin smacked the tiebreaking homer off Jim Johnson to open the ninth inning, but that was just one swing. A very timely, dramatic swing, sure. But it still was one swing.

Sabathia repeatedly had to squeeze the life from the Orioles, in their own back yard, and inning after inning, he kept doing it, for 26 outs. When he finally was lifted in the ninth, with the Yankees' 7-2 victory all but secured, Sabathia's line reflected another job well done: 82/3 innings, eight hits, two runs, one walk and seven strikeouts.

It was the longest outing by a Yankees starter in a Game 1 since Catfish Hunter beat the Royals in the 1976 ALCS. But not quite long enough for Sabathia.

"I always want to stay in," he said. "We grinded it out all game, but I was just one pitch away. You always want to try to finish what you start."

Getting through a tension-filled eighth inning was a major accomplishment in itself. After J.J. Hardy sliced his 99th pitch for a leadoff double that landed inches inside the rightfield line, Sabathia didn't sweat it.

With the go-ahead Oriole shadowing him on second base, Sabathia had to deal with Adam Jones. He started him with a changeup -- "Probably the best pitch he had to hit all game," Martin said -- but Jones could only foul it off. With two strikes, Jones fouled off another change before Sabathia whiffed him on an 81-mph slider.

"That was the biggest out," Martin said. "If [Jones] gets that guy over or draws a walk, it changes the game completely."

After that, there was a discussion about pitching around Matt Wieters, but Sabathia chose to attack instead and got him to pop up foul in front of the Baltimore dugout on a first-pitch fastball. Whatever remaining sliver of hope the 47,841 fans clung to at that point, Sabathia ripped it from them by finally getting Mark Reynolds, the Yankee-killer himself, on a grounder to Derek Jeter.

As Sabathia spun to watch Jeter's throw, he held his left arm above his head, then dropped his fist like an exclamation point. "It was a big spot,'' he said. "I normally try not to show a lot of emotion, but it just came out.''

That could have ended Sabathia's night there, after 110 pitches. But evidently, if the Yankees weren't finished, then neither was Sabathia.

Once they rallied for five runs in the ninth inning, Sabathia reappeared for the bottom half, shortly after midnight, and nearly put the Orioles to bed on his own. But after two quick outs, Lew Ford's flare double to right-centerfield prompted Joe Girardi to retrieve the baseball from his ace.

No matter. The Yankees needed everything from Sabathia in Game 1, and that's what he delivered. "It was his game to either win or lose, and that's exactly what he did," Girardi said. "He went out and won the game for us."

The last time Sabathia pitched at Camden Yards, there was some concern he might not make it to October. A surprising dip in velocity contributed to a lackluster night against the Orioles, and after the Yankees' 5-4 loss, questions about the health of his left elbow surfaced anew.

But Sabathia insisted he was fine, then proved it in his final three starts of the regular season, which he finished with a 1.50 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 24 innings. That kind of confidence was not only crucial for Sabathia but essential for the Yankees, who are taking a leap of faith into this Division Series with the rest of their rotation.

As usual, they were hoping for the expected distance from Sabathia, coming off his sixth straight season of at least 200 innings, so the jittery Girardi could preserve his precious bullpen for the rest of the series. Sabathia, after the Yankees' first-round exit against the Tigers in 2011, sounded ready for the task.

"This is the first step," he said. "It's been a little disappointing the past couple years. Hopefully, we can turn it around."

Andy Pettitte, who starts Monday night, has the big-game experience and a World Series resume. But he's also 40 years old and returned from a fractured ankle only three weeks earlier.

Then it gets scarier for the Yankees. When Sabathia looked shaky in early September, there was talk of possibly using Hiroki Kuroda as the No. 1 starter for the playoffs. But he appears exhausted after the most innings of his career (2192/3), and there could not be a worse time for that.

Kuroda had a 4.91 ERA in his final six starts and was ripped for a .303 average, by far his worst month this season. He skipped throwing bullpen sessions between starts to save whatever bullets he had left in his arm, and Girardi can't feel as if he has many innings left.

Finally, there is Phil Hughes, and Girardi hasn't felt too great about sending him out there lately, either. Hughes remains an enigma, giving the impression he's capable of being a prime-time starter until he again shows why he's not.

Hughes wrapped his final month with a 5.19 ERA, and Girardi knows it's a coin flip whenever he sends him to the mound. In other words, he's the exact opposite of Sabathia, who again proved why the hulking ace is the best trump card the Yankees have in this series.

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