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Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Updated: October 8, 11:12 PM ET
CC, A-Rod take giant steps

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The Las Vegas oddsmakers love the Yankees this October because of the team's 103 regular-season victories and its smorgasbord of weapons. New York is a club without a glaring weakness, and that always bodes well when it takes 11 victories to win a championship.

So it hardly seems fair that the Yankees should christen the 2009 postseason against an exhausted, semi-hungover opponent missing some key components because of injury. As much as the Yankees respect the Twins and will never take Minnesota lightly, the AL Division Series sets up nicely for New York die-hards who fret about a David vs. Goliath storyline and the evils that can befall so-called "sure things" in a best-of-five series.

The Twins arrived in New York on Wednesday looking as scrappy and resourceful as ever. But they were also sleep-deprived, missing first baseman Justin Morneau with a back injury, 6-18 against the Yankees going back to 2007 and winless in seven meetings with New York this season. Can you say "inherently disadvantaged"?

That made it a great night for pitcher CC Sabathia to prove he can be a stopper in October and for third baseman Alex Rodriguez to do something to make TBS stow all those snappy graphics about postseason futility.

CC Sabathia
CC Sabathia struck out eight and did not permit a walk in setting aside the Twins on Wednesday in the Bronx.

As for Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui, they don't need a lot of help.

Wednesday's ALDS opener isn't going to dissuade anybody who thinks this New York team is poised to go deep into October. With a methodical 7-2 victory over the Twins, the Yankees showed some home-field dominance and saved us from the obligatory "Oh my God, we're down in the series and counting on A.J. Burnett to save the day in Game 2" headlines.

With the exception of two Jorge Posada passed balls on miscommunications with Sabathia, it was just the way manager Joe Girardi might have envisioned introducing postseason play at the team's new $1.5 billion shrine.

Jeter reached base safely in all four plate appearances and hit his 18th postseason homer, tying Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle for third place on MLB's career list. Matsui homered off Francisco Liriano to enhance his credentials as an October big gun, and 49,464 fans at the new Yankee Stadium partied like it was 1999.

"I thought the crowd was great," Girardi said. "They started it early with the 'Let's go, Yankees' [chant]. It did feel like Yankee Stadium at playoff time."

Maybe the most important development is that two guys haunted by ghosts of postseasons past won't have to spend the next couple of days listening to how much they stink in October.

"This is what you come here for -- to have a chance to win and pitch in the postseason, playing in October," said Sabathia, who signed a seven-year, $161 million deal in December. "It was electric [on Wednesday]. It felt good. I had a lot of fun out there."

The Twins rolled in from Minnesota about 3 a.m. Wednesday after a 6-5, 12-inning victory over Detroit, but it was Sabathia and A-Rod who arrived carrying most of the baggage.

Rodriguez's October travails torment him almost as much as those nagging steroid revelations. He entered the division series with one RBI in his past 59 postseason at-bats, sporting no hits in his past 27 at-bats with runners on base and immersed in an 0-for-18 funk with runners in scoring position.

For all the talk of the newer, more relaxed, more focused A-Rod, that futility had to be weighing on him when he looked anxious and out of sync in his first two plate appearances against Twins lefty Brian Duensing.

Then Rodriguez responded, singling home a run to chase Duensing from the game in the fifth inning and driving a ball off the wall in the seventh against Jon Rauch for a second RBI. With those two hits, he has the luxury of a fresh start and gets a target off his back.

Sabathia wasn't quite as dominant as his former Cleveland teammate, fellow lefty Cliff Lee, who went the distance for the Phillies against Colorado earlier in the day. But Sabathia did make deft use of his cutter and his changeup, and he came up with big pitches at opportune moments in 6 2/3 innings of work.

Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez opened this postseason by going 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs in the Yankees' win.

When a reporter asked Twins manager Ron Gardenhire whether his team was still feeling the stress from the Detroit game, Gardenhire declined to take the bait.

"I kind of think it was CC Sabathia stress," he said.

Sabathia entered the Minnesota series with a 2-3 postseason record and a 7.92 October ERA, but the Yankees tried to ensure a better performance this year by lightening his load down the stretch.

Yes, Sabathia crapped out for Milwaukee in the 2008 NL Division Series, but he also had thrown 115 2/3 innings after the All-Star break and led the majors with 3,814 pitches in the regular season. This year, with a substantial lead in the AL East, the Yankees could afford to back off their horse in September. In each of his last four regular-season starts, Sabathia pitched with five or six days of rest.

Sabathia threw 101 2/3 innings after the break this season, and finished with 3,586 pitches -- fourth among MLB starters. That's still a hefty workload but, comparatively speaking, this version of Sabathia is as fresh as a 290-pound daisy.

"We felt if we could get him some extra rest in the month of September, it would pay off in the long run," Girardi said. "Fatigue can manifest itself in a lot of ways. It can be a lack of velocity, but it's usually lack of command. And we saw his command [in Game 1]. It was pretty good."

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who has a reputation for elevating his game in the postseason, doesn't discount the impact one good night can have on Rodriguez and Sabathia.

"Whatever happened in the past is behind us," Rivera said. "Those guys played [Wednesday] like I've seen the whole year. I'm happy for them."

If Sabathia and A-Rod need a lesson on how to produce in October, they should subscribe to the philosophy of Jeter, who makes it sound so simple. He talks about slowing the game down and preparing the same way, whether it's the postseason or a seemingly meaningless Grapefruit League game in March.

"I think this is the fun time of year," Jeter said. "It's not taking anything away from the regular season, but this is when you like to play, as a player. It doesn't mean you're always going to be successful. But you try to treat it like any other game, which can be difficult at times."

Maybe it's just a case of Jeter's being vanilla and refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but the Yankees' captain wouldn't even concede the possibility that Sabathia and Rodriguez might feel a burden from all that struggling-in-October talk.

"We don't listen to it," Jeter said. "So if somebody said that, I don't think too many people were talking about it in the clubhouse or reading it."

Hey, maybe he has the luxury of not reading it, but mere mortals aren't so immune to criticism. Sabathia and Rodriguez graduated from perceived October liabilities to big-time contributors in Game 1. Now they have the rest of the month -- they hope -- to build on their postseason legacies.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.