The way that CC Sabathia can command a big moment, the way he calmly catches the ball with his throwing hand when it’s flipped to him, the way he confidently stands on the mound, surely must be daunting for opposing batters. Yet none of that is his greatest contribution to the Yankees.
What he does best is not how much he frustrates the other side but how he reassures his own team. He does it all the time when he pitches after a Yankees loss, and he did it again Monday night in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series as the Yankees beat the Astros, 8-1, at Yankee Stadium.
Sabathia allowed one hit through four innings and three hits in his six scoreless innings. He is 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts following Yankees losses this year and also put his team on solid footing with a solid no-decision in a winner-take-all Game 5 at Cleveland in the Division Series.
Before beating the Astros, he had said: “It’s just one of those stats of the year. It is what it is. I don’t really think different after a win or a loss. Just one of those things.”
This was his 22nd career postseason appearance and the first time he has held an opponent scoreless. “It’s weird, me being 37,’’ he said. “Smoke and mirrors, getting a shutout. I just want to keep riding it, trying to throw strikes and be aggressive.”
By retiring George Springer with his first pitch Monday night, by striking out the irrepressible Jose Altuve to end an amazingly brisk first inning, Sabathia effectively told the rest of the Yankees, “It’s OK. Relax. I’ve got this.”
He allowed them to exhale and helped them breathe easily. By the time the fourth inning was over, the Yankees had an 8-0 lead. Sabathia, of course, was responsible for none of those runs. In a way, though, he might have had a hand in all of it. He makes everyone on the Yankees feel six inches taller — even Aaron Judge, who made a spectacular catch and blasted out of his slump with a three-run home run.
Referring to his approach, Sabathia said, “I just try not to change, be the same every day. That’s hard to do during a baseball season, but hopefully I feel like I can do a good job of that, just coming in with the same energy every day, feeling good and upbeat. Just feed off of that.”
When he was asked Sunday if he adds a little extra juice to his starts in a situation like this — on the cusp of going down three games to none — he all but laughed off the suggestion. “No, just go out and try to be aggressive in the strike zone, throw strikes and let them swing early in the count and get deeper in the game. Nothing different than I always do,” he said.
Maybe, but the way he thoroughly stifled the Astros in the early going seemed more than happenstance. Houston is the rare modern team that does not strike out much, but Sabathia struck out four batters in the first two innings, notably stars Altuve and Carlos Correa.
“He comes up big for us when we need him,’’ Brett Gardner said. “He’s a big-game pitcher. He might not have the velocity that he used to have, but he’s a better pitcher and has better command than he’s had. He knows what he’s doing out there. We’re lucky to have him on our side.”
Said Judge, “He attacks hitters, he attacks the zone. He puts it where he wants to. He’s not the same pitcher he was years ago, where he could just blow it 97 by guys. He’s working the corners, changing speeds, keeping guys off balance. When you get a guy doing that, it’s fun to play behind. You just want to go out there and make a play for him.’’
Said Todd Frazier: “He’s a bulldog. You look at the size of him, man, he looks like a bear out there on the mound, just ready to pounce on somebody. He has that going for him. He hits his spots. He had that one situation with the bases loaded [in the third] and he didn’t miss his spot. He’s made for this.”
Joe Girardi didn’t disagree. “We talked about it. We thought we had the right guy on the mound,’’ he said. “We couldn’t have asked for more.”
Anyone who has watched the Yankees could have seen this coming. It was no surprise to Brian McCann of the Astros, the former Yankee who counts Sabathia among his closest friends. McCann said during a news conference Saturday: “I just admire guys that can play this game for a long time, because it’s not easy. I don’t know if there’s many guys that would be pitching through the pain that CC pitches through. He’s one of the best pitchers of our generation. In my opinion, I think he’s a Hall of Famer. He’s a big-game pitcher. And when you’re around him and you see him in the clubhouse, it’s just impressive; his presence is enormous.”