Commentary

Sabathia bears down -- and bares teeth

CC throws 128 pitches, beats Boston, shows October intensity after Cervilli is plunked

Updated: August 31, 2011, 12:44 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- CC Sabathia wanted a heavyweight fight at Fenway, and no, John Lackey did not look half as eager to engage as Pedro Martinez looked the night Don Zimmer charged him from the enemy side.

Sabathia was incensed when Lackey hit Francisco Cervelli for doing a little end zone dance, for celebrating his homer by clapping his hands extra hard upon touching the plate. The ace of the New York Yankees was on the field shouting and gesturing at his opponent, this as a procession of much smaller men tried in vain to calm him.

Jorge Posada, of all people, was the most convincing peacemaker, though he was carrying a bat when he persuaded Sabathia to return to the bench. CC had already thrown his 128th and final pitch against the Boston Red Sox, but he wasn't done for the night.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Elsa/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia and the Yankees weren't about to sit still after Francisco Cervelli was drilled.

Forever cast as an agreeable and neighborly Yankee -- Brian Cashman even likened him to Santa Claus -- Sabathia was mad as hell and he wasn't going to fake it anymore.

"Yeah," CC said, "I didn't like it."

The pitch or the fact he took the mound with a chance to become the first Yankee to lose five games to Boston in a single season. Sabathia knew he needed to beat the Red Sox, if only to prove to his teammates and opponents that he could.

"Of course," he told reporters following yet another tense Boston marathon in a rivalry shaped by them. "That's so you guys stop talking about it."

Even manager Joe Girardi conceded this angle wasn't merely a media creation. And while the manager pushed his starter to the max, posting a message in neon lights that his team needed this one for a psychological lift, Sabathia breathed life into the notion that the Yankees belong to him.

It isn't easy for a pitcher sitting four out of every five games to grow into an everyday team leader; that's why it rarely happens. But when Cashman signed Sabathia to his $161 million deal, the GM told his prized recruit he wanted him to impose his personality on a team and clubhouse culture he believed had grown stale.

Sabathia set a tone of great expectations in his first spring training, revealing that he kept dreaming of the World Series parade -- night after night after night -- he was certain would come seven months later. The real-life parade, Sabathia would later say, matched up exactly with his prophetic visions in the night. "It was déjà vu," he said.

All over again.

But Sabathia also declared he wanted to be a next-generation Yogi or Jeter. In other words, a Yankee who won multiple rings.

So Tuesday night, with the Red Sox threatening to beat the Yanks for the 11th time in 13 tries, and with most observers expecting Boston to carry home-field advantage into the anticipated October rematch, the gentle giant wasn't so gentle after all.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonThe Yankees won 5-2 on Tuesday as CC Sabathia improved to 18-7 for the season.

Sabathia threw fastballs, lots and lots of fastballs. When he needed three straight 96-mph heaters to blow away David Ortiz, he delivered them. When he needed three unforgiving sliders over three different innings to make a .345 hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, look like a damn fool, Sabathia delivered those, too.

On Pitch No. 128, a full-count offering to the overmatched Gonzalez, Sabathia was strong enough to clock in at 96 and smart enough to get the Boston first baseman to ground to short.

"It was time to go to something else," CC said.

In balancing 10 strikeouts against 10 hits over six death-match innings, Sabathia nearly equaled his career high of 130 pitches throw in the employ of the Milwaukee Brewers, who treated CC's arm the way college kids on spring break treat a rented car.

On one level, Girardi was positively mad to send out Sabathia for the sixth with 109 pitches already in his hip pocket. With the Yanks and Sox booked for the playoffs, this game was about as meaningful as Jets-Giants on Monday night.

At 6-foot-7 and who knows how many pounds, Sabathia projects the vibe of an immovable mountain. But now he's deep into his fifth consecutive season of 200-plus innings, and at some point his left arm will need some tender loving care.

Tuesday night at Fenway wasn't the time or the place. Girardi was working with a short bullpen and a lineup that didn't include Alex Rodriguez, still down with his injured thumb. The manager needed Sabathia to be Sabathia.

"Have you had enough?" Girardi joked to his starter before the seventh.

As it turned out, the ace still had some fight left to give. Lackey plunked Cervelli, and Sabathia was by far the most animated Yankee off the bench and onto the field.

"Did you think it was intentional?" CC asked a reporter who had posed the same question. The reporter nodded. "Well, I did too," the pitcher said.

Sabathia said people would "have to read lips" to find out what he barked at Lackey, and nobody pressed the matter. But the Yankees ace did most of his talking at Fenway with his stuff, and with his willingness to hit Jacoby Ellsbury in the first right after it appeared Lackey had hit Curtis Granderson (the pitch was ruled a foul ball).

So was it important for the 2011 Red Sox to learn that Sabathia wouldn't crumble under the weight of his 0-4 record against them?

"Sure," the winning pitcher agreed. He was wearing a white towel over his left shoulder when he turned the subject to respect.

"I would hope that [the Red Sox] would have a little respect," he said, "and know that I can pitch pretty good when I need to."

The Red Sox already knew Sabathia could pitch. The rest of baseball is discovering that Sabathia can lead, too.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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