Friday, September 30, 2011
Only Mother Nature could stop Sabathia
By Ian O'Connor ESPNNewYork.com
NEW YORK -- With a towel dangling from his left shoulder and a weary, been-a-long-night expression stretched across his face, CC Sabathia did not look like a heavyweight who had just won the early rounds in baseball's answer to a pay-per-view fight.
Sabathia was ahead of Justin Verlander on all cards -- if not on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard -- when this Game 1 bout was stopped in the bottom of the second by an undefeated force.
"The one thing I've probably learned as much as any other," said New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, "you cannot fight Mother Nature."
Despite a Delmon Young homer, heavyweight CC Sabathia was showing a clear edge on Justin Verlander in the early rounds.
Rain didn't just shut down the division series opener between the Yankees and Detroit Tigers, and put the remains of Game 1 in the hands of Ivan Nova and Doug Fister on Saturday night. Rain also likely cost Sabathia a chance to pitch two full games against the Tigers, and definitely cost him a crack at enjoying one of the more memorable nights of his distinguished baseball life.
"It looked like it was going to be a good game," Sabathia said.
It looked like it was going to be something better than that.
In this highly anticipated pairing of aces, Verlander labored through 25 pitches in one inning while his counterpart breezed through 27 pitches over two. Then the heavens opened and the field puddled and the sport's elders ultimately called it a night.
Jim Leyland announced that Verlander would start Game 3, and then disappear for the rest of the series. Girardi announced that Sabathia wouldn't start before Game 3, but at the same time nudged open the door to the possibility his man could return in Sunday's Game 2 and then reappear in a Game 5.
Sabathia was already warming up his campaign. "Sure," he said when asked if he would lobby Girardi to start Sunday. "If that means I get the ball as many times as possible, I'm all for it."
The big man was opting in before he opts out of his $161 million contract at season's end, and that should come as no surprise. When he last faced free agency, Sabathia allowed the Milwaukee Brewers -- a team lacking the resources to re-sign him -- to treat his left arm like the rental it was.
No, Girardi didn't sound like a customer inclined to buy the pitch. "I don't think that's the right thing to do," he said of running Sabathia out there for Game 2. The manager talked about the bullpen work, the 27 live pitches, the stress of pitching a postseason opener in Yankee Stadium.
"You're asking an awful lot," Girardi said. "And the thing is, when CC goes out there, you want a rested CC in a sense, and a sharp CC. It's possible for him to go out there Sunday, but I can't tell you what we would get because of what he went through."
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What he went through? Or what he put the Tigers through?
Sabathia did surrender a home run to Delmon Young in the first, a ball that barely cleared a leaping Nick Swisher and the wall in right.
"Just one mistake really," said Russell Martin. "It was one of the short-porch homers, and you've got to live and die with it sometimes. In a lot of ballparks that's just a fly ball."
But it was Sabathia's work against the two batters who preceded Young, and the four Detroit batters who followed him that suggested a narrative arc moving in the home ace's favor.
Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez were completely overmatched to start the game, Jackson whiffing on three pitches, Ordonez on four. The lethal Miguel Cabrera followed Young's homer with a harmless grounder to short.
In the second inning, Sabathia got Victor Martinez on a groundout and then struck out Alex Avila swinging and Ryan Raburn looking.
"He had good life on his fastball," Martin said of Sabathia. "His two-seamer had some good action to it, it looks like he had a good feel for his changeup, and he got a swing-and-miss on his slider. So when all those things are happening for him, he's pretty good."
Or better than Verlander, the best in the game. As Sabathia attacked the strike zone, Verlander walked two batters in his one inning, losing Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira on 3-2 pitches and losing Teixeira after starting with an 0-2 count.
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Verlander did get something of a raw deal when Derek Jeter advanced to first base on a strike three that bounced away from Avila, and when two infielders double-pumped on grounders and ultimately allowed Jeter to score. But even if the Yankees tied it without managing a single hit, Verlander was playing his opponent's game.
"We want to make this guy throw pitches," Yankees executive Gene Michael said before Verlander started throwing them. "We want to get him out of there as soon as we can."
But the weather came out of left field and ran everybody out of there first, leaving Girardi to sound like some soaked and frustrated tennis fan at the U.S. Open.
"There's nothing we can do about it now," he said. "It's too late to put a roof on."
And despite Sabathia's considerable powers of persuasion, it's likely too late to see him pitch two full games in this series. Nova looks like the man in Game 1A and Game 5, with Freddy Garcia handling Game 2 and, gulp, A.J. Burnett handling Game 4.
For the Tigers, Doug Fister will go twice and Verlander will be confined to Game 3. It's a shame for all involved, but especially for the one Friday night starter who appeared ready to roll.
"Yeah, he did look sharp," Girardi said of Sabathia.
At least until Mother Nature rained on CC's parade.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.