Sabathia gives Yanks a giant boost

BALTIMORE -- CC Sabathia was a man of few pitches and even fewer words Sunday night.

Here is how he recounted the conversation between himself and manager Joe Girardi before the ninth inning of Game 1 of the American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.

Girardi: "You good?"

Sabathia: "I'm good. Let's go."

So Sabathia went out to finish the job he had expected to start more than six hours earlier -- the first pitch was delayed by nearly 2½ hours by rain -- and even if the manager came to get him an out short of his goal, it was a full night's work and more from the Yankees' ace.

Considering the circumstances, Sabathia's 8 2/3-inning, eight-hit, two=run performance in the Yankees' 7-2 victory might well have been his best outing of the season.

But more than that, his Game 1 victory in this best-of-five series was also a giant step toward winning Game 2 as well.

Now, with the Yankees' bullpen fully rested -- only David Robertson was forced to work Sunday night, and to only one batter, a game-ending strikeout of pinch hitter Ryan Flaherty -- they head into action Monday with seven fresh arms to back up Andy Pettitte, who is only the winningest postseason pitcher in the history of baseball.

It's hard to imagine a better start to a playoff series than that. But when you add in the way it was accomplished -- on a Russell Martin home run in the top of the ninth off Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who hadn't been taken deep since June 5, followed by a four-run rally -- you wonder exactly how much better this October could get.

But it all starts with Sabathia, who had faced the Orioles three times this season and got banged around like a punching bag all three. In his last three regular-season starts, however, Sabathia has borne very little resemblance to the good-but-not-great pitcher he had been for most of the year, and certainly nothing like the guy the Orioles belted three home runs off in September.

On this night, Sabathia looked like a different pitcher, and consequently, the Yankees looked like a different team.

Oh, some familiar problems resurfaced. They were 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position before their ninth-inning eruption, and somehow managed to get themselves thrown out at second, third and home in the first seven innings, running their way out of what could have been three big innings.

But there were moments of brilliance, as well -- notably Martin's fifth inning, in which he pounced on a swinging bunt by Lew Ford and made a terrific one-hop throw while slipping on the grass. First baseman Mark Teixeira made an equally terrific scoop to get the out and prevent the Orioles from a possible big inning.

There was Derek Jeter getting a two-strike bunt down after looking clueless on his first two attempts in the seventh, and there was Ichiro Suzuki's RBI double in the first when it looked like the Yankees might blow Jason Hammel out of the game early. But Ichiro got himself thrown out stealing third, Jeter's bunt led nowhere when the Orioles' Matt Wieters made a great play to save a run, and then Alex Rodriguez struck out for the second of what would be three times. And after 7½ innings the Yankees seemed to be fighting the Orioles' fight, locked into a 2-2 game against a team with a 29-9 record in one-run games.

But then came Sabathia's finest moment -- an eighth inning in which he allowed a leadoff double to J.J. Hardy and then shut down the Orioles on a strikeout of Adam Jones, a popout by Wieters and a groundout by Yankees killer Mark Reynolds. So happy was Sabathia with himself that the normally reserved lefty gave out with the kind of fist-pump that Nick Swisher would have been proud of.

"He won the game for us right there," Girardi said.

Which is why the conversation between manager and ace before the ninth was predictably brief and conclusive.

"I wasn't going to make a move," Girardi said. "I said it was his game to win or lose, and that's exactly what he did."

Sabathia had been remarkably economical through the first six innings, needing just seven pitches to get through the first and 30 to get through the first three. Which is truly amazing when you consider that although he faced five batters and allowed three hits -- and the Orioles' only two runs of the game -- in the third inning, he needed only nine pitches to do it.

"Is that right?" he said afterward, laughing, when told about his fat-free third. "They were swinging at a lot of first pitches, which made it better for me."

On a night when he did not seem to have his best fastball -- Sabathia's velocity ranged from 91-93 mph all game -- he rope-a-doped the aggressive Orioles' hitters with his changeup to get most of his seven strikeouts.

"His changeup is really deceiving to hitters and we used it a lot tonight," Martin said. "It looks like a fastball with the rotation and everything, and when it's down in the zone you can't really do much with it. It seemed like the hitters were really uncomfortable tonight."

If Sabathia had one complaint, it was that he was unable to do what no Yankees starter has done in a postseason game in 12 years -- throw a complete game, last accomplished by Roger Clemens against the Seattle Mariners in the 2000 ALCS. He got the first two outs of the ninth easily, on a groundout and a strikeout, and even got to 0-2 on Ford. But when Ford doubled down the right-field line, Girardi decided 120 pitches and 26 outs from his ace was enough for one night.

"I always want to stay in and to get one pitch away or one strike away is tough," he said. "You always want to finish what you start."

But even though Sabathia didn't finish the game, he may have made it easier for the Yankees to finish off the stubborn Orioles. Now he leaves them in a position to take a commanding lead in Monday night's Game 2, with Pettitte on the mound and a rested bullpen behind him.

"He's a pitcher," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Sabathia. "I think sometimes people forget how much of a pitcher he is."

Based on what they had seen of him this season, the Orioles may have forgotten, too.

But CC Sabathia reminded them of who he used to be. And if he stays this way for the rest of the month, this could very well end being another Yankees season to remember.