CLEVELAND – For CC Sabathia, there is no higher compliment than to be compared to Andy Pettitte. One of the secondary reasons Sabathia gives for signing with the New York Yankees in the winter of 2008 was a chance to be Pettitte’s teammate. The two became the best of friends as Pettitte put the finishing touches on a Yankee career that ended with a plaque in Monument Park.
Pettitte earned that hallowed Yankee honor largely because of all his clutch playoff performances -- especially in Game 2s, when Joe Torre called his number so many times. Pettitte relied on his famed cutter, and a large part of Sabathia’s career resurgence has been due to Pettitte sharing the secret sauce for that pitch.
On Friday in Game 2 of the American League Division Series with his team down a game, the Yankees will need Sabathia to pull a Pettitte. And they will need him to do it against Corey Kluber, the Cleveland Indians' ace and perhaps the best pitcher in baseball.
Although Sabathia will not, strictly speaking, be pitching for the Yankees’ season, it will be close to it, considering the Indians have lost only four times in their past 38 games. It is a little hard to imagine that they would lose three straight if they go up by two games.
While Sabathia may not end up in Monument Park, he already has earned a lifetime of standing ovations at Old-Timers’ Days because he, along with Alex Rodriguez, basically delivered the Core Four their fifth title in 2009.
That was the beginning of Sabathia’s Yankee career, while this could be the end of it.
He wants to keep playing, and after he went 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA this year the Yankees may re-sign him for 2018. But on Friday, the Yankees desperately need Sabathia to do what he has done all season -- one in which he went 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA after Yankee losses.
So far in the playoffs, the bar for Yankees’ starters has been set lower than Eddie Gaedel. In two games, Luis Severino and Sonny Gray have recorded only 11 outs. You might be able to overcome that type of starting pitching against the Twins, but against the Indians? Forget about it. So manager Joe Girardi will hand the ball to Sabathia with confidence.
“This has been a guy we’ve relied on heavily after losses this year,” Girardi said. “He’s pitched some of the biggest wins for us during the course of the year. He’s been in a ton of these games, and you know that there’s no situation that is too big for CC."
Like Pettitte at the end, the 37-year-old Sabathia is not the same guy he once was. The brain and the heart are even more important than the once-golden left arm.
It is that heart, in Girardi’s estimation, that helped Sabathia come back from an August knee injury that initially was thought could be career-ending, and now to get the ball Friday ahead of the $175 million man, Masahiro Tanaka.
“He’s a big-game pitcher and he has pitched in a lot of big games in his career. Competing against Kluber will be fun to watch,” said left fielder Brett Gardner, who, along with Sabathia on the current roster, has been in pinstripes the longest.
Sabathia is a leader of this Yankee team, like an older brother to the Baby Bombers. Many times a starter is not someone a baseball clubhouse looks to for leadership, because they don’t play every day. Sabathia has the personality and respect of his teammates. He is one of the guys out in front, even when he doesn’t have the ball.
On Friday, a little after 5 p.m. ET, Sabathia will be on the mound with the Yankees’ season in his left hand. It will be a fitting spot for him.
It was all the way back in 2001 that he was the precious wunderkind for the Indians. As a 21-year-old rookie, he won his first playoff start at what was then Jacobs Field. The Indians made it easy for him, roughing up Aaron Sele and the Mariners 17-2.
“I kind of grew up here,” Sabathia said. “To be able to pitch in a playoff game is going to be a lot of fun.”
If it is really fun -- and Sabathia leads the Yankees to a comeback in this series -- he might be as fondly remembered as his buddy Pettitte. Or, at least, close to him.