Sabathia vs. Lee, sort of, in Game 1

NEW YORK -- He hangs over this series like a threatening storm that could explode and cause destruction. Or it might just pass through, with a few raindrops but doing no real damage.

His name is Cliff Lee, and he waits in the distance. A Texas Tornado that could wreak havoc on the Bronx.

The New York Yankees caught a break, not having to face Lee in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. But Lee is hovering, looming in Game 3. If the Yankees are unable to win either of the first two games in Arlington, Texas, then Lee would await them in Game 3, with the prospect of their own human flash-flood warning, A.J. Burnett, pitching in Game 4 or 5.

The man who can slow down the force of nature that is Cliff Lee is his good buddy and former teammate, CC Sabathia. While Lee has been historically great, Sabathia hasn't been half-bad either.

So while ALCS Game 1 isn't actually Sabathia versus Lee, in reality, it is.

If Sabathia takes care of business in Game 1 Friday night, and the Yanks break serve on the Rangers' home field, then the fact that Lee must be relegated to Game 3 really has merit. Then, all of a sudden, Lee might get only one shot at the Yankees. Then, the possibility of a Game 7 with Lee on the mound in Texas diminishes.

Sabathia knows what his best friend can do. He rooted for him on Tuesday night in Game 5 of the ALDS. (In fairness, Sabathia was also pulling for the Rays' David Price, another buddy of his, too.) He plans on congratulating Lee on Thursday when they see each other.

"It's been incredible what he's been doing the last two years," Sabathia said.

Lee is 6-0 in seven postseason starts. Only Bob Gibson, Lefty Gomez, Jack Morris and Livan and Orlando Hernandez have done that. He almost single-handedly advanced the Rangers to the ALCS, becoming the first pitcher to win Games 1 and 5 since Yankees setup man Kerry Wood did it in 2003 with the Chicago Cubs.

It is always important to win either Game 1 or Game 2 when you don't have home-field advantage, but with Lee off in the distance, there is an added urgency.

"Definitely," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "I mean, you want to win the first game of a series. You want to get off on the right foot. And I'm not saying it's going to be easy against [C.J.] Wilson, because he's a great pitcher. But when you have a chance to see Cliff Lee pitch before your first game and then have a couple of days of not facing him, it's always good, because he's been dominant in his postseason career."

Meanwhile, the Yankees are leaning on Game 2 of last year's World Series to believe that Burnett might be OK. He threw his first pitch of his simulated start on Wednesday to the backstop. That didn't make anyone else feel confident, but Burnett still believes in himself.

"I don't have a problem with confidence to begin with," Burnett said.

The Yankees will have to deal with Lee for this series, and then he very well could be wearing pinstripes next season. At this time next year, the Yankees' biggest question might be whether they should start Sabathia or Lee in Game 1 of the ALCS.

"I hope so," Sabathia said with a smile. "We'll see."

For now, Sabathia's job is to limit Lee, even if Sabathia's manager is trying to keep the focus off the Rangers' ace.

"We're not going to face him until Game 3, but we better worry about Game 1 first," Joe Girardi said.

Yes, indeed. They better worry about Game 1 first. Because if they lose Game 1 and fall in Game 2, the Yankees will return to Panic City. A Texas Tornado named Cliff Lee will be circling the Bronx with a Burnett in the on-deck circle.

Sabathia, a freak of nature himself, can change the forecast, beginning in Game 1.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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