Polished Sabathia gets Game 1 start
Left-hander takes lessons from ALDS into matchup with Sox
BOSTON -- C.C. Sabathia is slimmer, trimmer, more in control of his emotions and more in control of his pitches.He has learned to develop a strict routine with his off-field preparations and stay with a rhythm and quick tempo when he is on the mound. He has acquired the toughness and leadership skills to be a true No. 1 starter on a division championship team. All those attributes will be put to the test on Friday night when he takes the mound for the Cleveland Indians and faces the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Sabathia will be going against the most patient team in the AL, one that knows how to work a pitcher and drive up his pitch counts. He'll also be doing it on their turf and in a ballpark known to be tough on left-handed pitchers. "I'm just excited to get out there tomorrow," Sabathia said before the Indians' workout on Thursday at Fenway Park. Sabathia knows he must temper his exuberance, a lesson he learned in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees. He let the excitement of the moment get to him and walked six in five innings. He was done at that point, having thrown 114 pitches. "I think it was just a case of me overthrowing," Sabathia said. "Usually, I've got pretty good control when I'm 91-94 [mph], in that range, and I can hump up and get to 96, 97. From Pitch 1 the other night, I was 96, 97 the whole time. I'm going to work hard tomorrow to keep that under control and be able to hit my spots." Sabathia did that during the regular season. He walked 1.38 batters per nine innings, second lowest in the league. He averaged 14.9 pitches per inning, sixth lowest. His 5.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the highest in AL history for a left-hander. The excitement of the playoffs took Sabathia out of his game against the Yankees. The Red Sox, who led the league in walks and pitches per at-bat, have the same goal in mind. "He's a big power pitcher who goes right after you," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. "The one thing this year is he's not walking guys. He's not walking five or six. You have to hit your way on, but it's important not to chase his pitch when he's trying to put you away. It's important for us to put together good professional at-bats, maybe get his pitch count up and get to their bullpen." Sabathia was good at not letting that happen during the regular season, when he made 34 starts and went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA. He was third in the league with 25 quality starts and also pitched at least seven innings in 24 of his 34 starts. "I'm just going to try and pound the strike zone with all my pitches," Sabathia said. "Hopefully, the second and third time around the lineup, they'll start swinging earlier. I need to show them I can throw all my pitches for strikes." That's what Sabathia did during the regular season in jumping into the elite class of pitchers after averaging just under 13 wins a year over his previous five seasons. The control was there, mentally, physically and emotionally. He is no longer a threat to punch a hole in a clubhouse pillar, like he did a few years ago after a rough outing. He has also trimmed some weight over the years, adding to his durability.
"He's made some adjustments to his game mentally, physically, fundamentally, emotionally -- the whole nine yards," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "This is a guy that's a true No. 1, the leader of our pitching staff. You look at the consistency to which he handles himself and the toughness that he shows -- obviously, along with his ability, you've got an outstanding young man on the mound there."The Red Sox prepare a different lineup for Sabathia. Manager Terry Francona is sitting left-handed hitter J.D. Drew and starting switch-hitter Bobby Kielty in right field. Kielty is 9-for-29 with two home runs in his career off Sabathia. Manny Ramirez is 12-for-21 with four home runs. "There's no secret to it," Kielty said. "He's a lefty, and I've hit left-handers pretty well. He's just a guy that I see the ball well off, but he's still tough. He obviously has great stuff, he throws hard and has a great slider." Sabathia will also be pitching against Red Sox 20-game winner Josh Beckett and he'll be doing it at Fenway Park, in a front of a rambunctious sellout crowd. He also has to contend with the Green Monster, the 34-foot wall in left field that makes for an inviting target for right-handed hitters going against left-handed pitchers. Kenny Rogers, Jamie Moyer and Randy Johnson are among the best left-handers in the game, and all have career ERAs over 5.00 at Fenway. Whitey Ford is in the Hall of Fame, but from 1957-65 (no stats are available before 1957) he went 4-5 with a 6.44 ERA in 11 games at Fenway. Legend has it that Yankees manager Casey Stengel often adjusted his rotation so that Ford would miss pitching at Fenway Park. Sabathia has handled himself well so far, going 1-1 with a 2.35 ERA in three career starts at Fenway. "I think it's going to be wild," Sabathia said. "I know Red Sox Nation is going to be here in full effect, and I just need to go out there and try to keep them as quiet as possible."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.