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NEW YORK -- CC Sabathia was man enough for the moment, his shoulders wide enough and his contract big enough to carry a sudden-death burden the size of Central Park.
This is why Brian Cashman made that covert winter trip to Sabathia's California home way back when. This is why Cashman begged the reluctant free agent to take every last penny of his $161 million bid.
You recall the old whispers that Sabathia wasn't crazy about pitching here? As it turned out, they were 100 percent true. Sabathia's heart wasn't in the Bronx, and it had more to do with the state of the New York Yankees' clubhouse than it did the state of New York.
|CC Sabathia struck out seven Rangers in his Game 5 win on Wednesday.|
Sabathia heard the rumors that the Yanks were a house divided, that the tension between their two heads of state, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, made for an awkward environment. The recruit told the recruiter he was concerned about his workplace, and Cashman did a funny thing in response.
"I told him the truth," the general manager said.
Cashman told Sabathia the Yankees needed his help.
"Yeah, we are broken," the GM told the ace. "One reason we're committing this money to you is because you're a team builder, and we need somebody to bring us all together."
Two postseasons and one World Series championship later, Cashman and Joe Girardi didn't need Sabathia to be a peacemaker.
They needed him to be a savior.
Given the American League Championship Series circumstances Wednesday evening, it was a hell of a lot to ask. Sabathia had been lousy in his two postseason starts, one against Minnesota, one against Texas, both on extra rest. Everyone on the Yankees' side had their excuses and their stories lined up: CC had been too strong.
Never mind that CC didn't look strong enough.
"They've bailed me out twice," Sabathia said of his teammates and their Game 1 comebacks against the Twins and Rangers.
So there was Sabathia on the mound in Game 5, inspired to pay back his teammates in an extra-large way. It was CC's turn to deliver the bail-out package, and this time around there would be no excuses, not with Sabathia going on regular rest.
He stood tall on the Yankee Stadium mound, all 6 feet, 7 inches and 300 pounds of him. Even if he wouldn't admit it, and even if Cliff Lee qualifies as his BFF, Sabathia had to be sick and tired of the never-ending conversation about Lee's otherworldly skill.
CC did something about it. He protected the early 5-0 lead the Yankees gave him, held the Rangers to two runs over six innings despite surrendering 11 hits and sent the ALCS barreling back to Texas, where the Yanks will have a Game 6 mountain to climb just to take their place in Lee's rarefied air.
No, Sabathia's performance wasn't Lee-like, not even close. But he did strike out seven Rangers without walking any, and he did make the two pitches he positively had to make.
"That's why he's won the games he's won," Texas manager Ron Washington said, "and that's why he's considered one of the best pitchers in the game. They bend; they don't break."
Sabathia did bend against the predictable storm that blew in with the Yankees facing three consecutive win-or-else games. But in the fifth inning, with one out and two on and the Rangers coming to life after Matt Treanor's homer, Sabathia stood up to Josh Hamilton, convincing him to turn over a 1-1 pitch and bounce into a sure double play.
"Trying to do exactly that," Sabathia confirmed.
In the sixth, the Rangers pushed another run home and had men on second and third, two outs. With Sabathia's pitch count soaring, Mitch Moreland decided it was time to fight the ace to the Game 5 death. The Texas first baseman worked the count to 2-2 and fouled off four pitches as Sabathia's pitch count jumped to 111.
On Pitch No. 112, Sabathia unleashed his final and finest offering of the night, a cutter that ran back over the inside of the plate. The ump, Fieldin Culbreth, made an emphatic call, CC pumped his fists and Moreland shot the pitcher a look of sheer disbelief.
"Our back was up against the wall today, and I just wanted to fight," Sabathia said, "no matter what the situation was, no matter how many runners were on base in any given inning."
Kerry Wood got the next six outs, Mariano Rivera got the last three and suddenly the Yankees were blind believers in Girardi, who screwed up Game 4 before calling a clubhouse meeting and ordering his players to keep their heads while everyone around them lost theirs.
"That was huge," Sabathia said of Girardi's speech.
Just not as huge as the Yankees' own big man in the paint, the steady anchor of an unsteady team now charged to survive a turbulent two days in Texas.
When Sabathia walked into the postgame interview room, his two young daughters, Jaden and Cyia, were hanging on him as if he were a moving swing set. CC said he wasn't nervous before Game 5, said he felt more prepared than he did in Game 1.
"CC is always the same," Jorge Posada said. "That's one of the best things about CC. He doesn't look like he's pitching that day, just sitting down on the couch and just watching a little bit of TV and really talking to everybody."
For two seasons, Sabathia's smile and personality have lit up the room enough for Cashman to liken him to Santa Claus. On Wednesday evening, the Yankees needed CC's generosity of spirit to make it through a grim task.
They needed him to respond to the tens of thousands of fans who were standing and chanting his name in the sixth, and they needed him to pitch with the conviction he showed during the championship drive of '09.
Sabathia honored the terms of his contract. Hired as a clubhouse buffer, as a builder of buckled Yankees bridges, CC wasn't asked to keep the peace in Game 5.
He was asked to save the season. And with the Yankees on a plane heading south, their $161 million bid on Sabathia looked like a steal.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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