- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia tried to convince everyone he would view Game 3 of the American League Division Series, a reset of his rain-shortened Game 1 showdown against Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the same way whether the Yankees won or lost Game 2 on Sunday. But that can't be the truth, and deep down, Sabathia knew it even before the Tigers no-hit the Yanks for the first five innings on the way to a 5-3 win, or manager Joe Girardi reached down into his bag of neuroses-reviving options and announced that A.J. Burnett would be his Game 4 starter.
Technically, the Tigers leveled the series at only a game apiece with their Game 2 win. It just doesn't feel that way now for the Yankees, as the series moves to Detroit on Monday for Game 3.
From the moment they didn't get Cliff Lee in the offseason and Andy Pettitte retired to a life of throwing only ceremonial first pitches like he did before Sunday's game at the Stadium, the Yanks have had to wonder and worry when their thin starting pitching was going to finally cause them more than the usual vague tightness in their chests.
And now, thanks to Friday's rains, which short-circuited the Yanks' plans to start Sabathia twice in this best-of-five series, they've already arrived at their first must-win game just two measly contests into the postseason.
"I don't want to sit here and say if I don't pitch, we can't win, because we've been doing it all year," Sabathia insisted.
The Yankees did, indeed, lead the American League in wins, which is a nice little bauble to have. But it often signifies nothing once the playoffs begin. They've been relying on an odd formula to win all year -- score enough runs so that their bats get the game to their bullpen even if their starters don't, because their starters are a cross-your-fingers rotation that features a journeyman (Freddy Garcia); a rookie (godsend Ivan Nova, who has a surprising 16 wins, plus another in Game 1 of the ALDS); and Burnett, who in his third season with the Yankees continues to show some damn fine velocity and confoundingly inconsistent results.
But the playoffs are an entirely different beast. The biggest change, besides the amped-up pressure, is something Tigers manager Jim Leyland pointed out the other day: "The one thing that in most cases will always hold true is that when you go to postseason, you're going to see a good pitcher every night."
So the Yankees are not only begging Sabathia to do the usual -- be invincible -- they're asking him to walk out and get a must-win in Detroit on Monday by being better than the best pitcher in baseball this year, Verlander, the Tigers' 24-game winner, American League Cy Young favorite and leading candidate for AL MVP. And they're asking Sabathia to do it knowing that the only thing that stands between them and the scary proposition of having to rely on Burnett to save their season in Game 4 is him.
Sabathia can do it, of course.
But now he has to.
The best thing Sabathia has going for him is he has won must-win games like this before. And he has done it in the playoffs, something Verlander -- who is 1-2 in his past postseason appearances, all of them as a rookie in 2006 -- so far can't claim. And that matters, all right.
Verlander is having a dream season, it's true; but so is Tigers closer Jose Valverde, who was a perfect 49-0 in save opportunities this season before staggering around against the Yanks in the ninth inning Sunday.
"CC is a big-game pitcher, so I'm not too worried about him," Yankees catcher Russell Martin said, looking ahead to Monday's game. "His stuff was great [before the rain came Friday]. He was pounding the strike zone. He wants the ball. He wants to be on the mound."
Once again, the Yanks will need that, and more. They'll need Sabathia to be impervious to pressure, and immune to 120-some pitch counts that would level plenty of other guys. They're asking him to do more than just the usual ace's job description of winning a game. They need him to give the entire team the feeling that he's their safety net, the same way Mariano Rivera does at the end of games. And the Yankees badly need the margin of error he can give them by beating the Tigers and Verlander.
Winning one out of two with Burnett and then Nova in the next two games looks a whole lot more palatable to the Yankees than coming out of Game 3 knowing they have to win two out of two to advance.
"It's a big game," Derek Jeter acknowledged.
"It's obviously important. A lot of people talk about Game 3 being the most important of a series all of the time," Girardi added.
"You never know what's going to happen, especially after expecting CC to pitch two games," Andruw Jones said.
Two starts would've been nice. But at this point, the Yanks will be happy if Sabathia can just win them his next one.
Two starts would've been nice. But the Yanks need to win CC's next one.