- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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DETROIT -- The Detroit Tigers fans stood and cheered for CC Sabathia as he trudged off the mound in the sixth, the final indignity for the New York Yankees ace, by far the second best ace on the division series field.
Sabathia, the 6-foot-7 wide body, was supposed to be an immovable force, the man behind the Yanks' return to World Series glory. Instead in Game 3 he was just another guy in the wrong weight class, just another pitcher who only wished he could borrow the rocket launcher disguised as Justin Verlander's right arm.
So Yankees manager Joe Girardi shouldn't have bothered wasting everyone's time Monday night by trying to blame this devastating 5-4 defeat on plate umpire Gerry Davis and his peep-hole for a strike zone, not when the accountable Sabathia was big enough to shoulder the blame.
"That's baseball," Sabathia said of Davis' zone. "I'm not going to sit here and say this is the umpire's fault. I just didn't make pitches when I needed to."
No he didn't. When Sabathia was reminded that he'd had a perfect record with Davis behind the plate (CC was 6-0 with a 2.19 ERA, according to ESPN Stats & Information), the pitcher responded, "I've never been one to look at who's calling balls and strikes. It's up to me to get the guys out."
Verlander got enough guys out and Sabathia did not, simple as that. It doesn't matter that the vanquished ace dodged the decision in a loss that leaves the 2011 Yankees one A.J. Burnett start away from extinction. It doesn't matter that Rafael Soriano surrendered the winning homer to Delmon Young, or that Nick Swisher inexplicably swung at, and popped up, a 2-0 pitch from Jose Valverde to lead off the ninth, or that Derek Jeter struck out with two runners on to close out the game.
The Yankees' starter is the figure most responsible for the Tigers being one fortuitous night away from doing exactly what they did in 2006. Namely, following an opening division series loss by running the table and running the Yanks into next year.
"It's tough," Sabathia said, "especially it being my fault tonight. I put us in a bad spot, so next time I get the ball I'll try to go out and try to help us win."
But there isn't going to be a next time if logic has anything to do with it. Can Burnett actually save the season and send this series barreling back to the Bronx for an all-or-nothing Game 5?
If stranger things have happened in sports, none come to mind.
"I feel good about what A.J. is going to do for us tomorrow," Girardi said.
The manager said it because he's paid to say it.
He's also paid to honor the franchise mission statement, which makes no mention of a first-round exit. But Sabathia put the Yanks on the brink of elimination by failing to protect the 2-0 lead handed him in the first inning, and by failing to honor his $161 million contract -- or the pending opt-out from that contract -- on a night when his teammates somehow managed to score four runs on Verlander.
CC's long, frustrating journey started with three walks and 27 pitches in the first. At the end of that inning, Sabathia approached Davis and asked, "How far am I missing?"
The ump put his thumb and index finger an inch apart and said, "By that much."
Sabathia kept trying in vain to close that distance; he threw 63 pitches in three innings. When he was pulled in the sixth, Sabathia had delivered 106 pitches and surrendered four runs, seven hits and five unintentional walks.
"I actually thought he made a lot of good pitches tonight," Girardi maintained at the start of his postgame news conference, "and I thought the zone was a small zone tonight. You throw some borderline pitches and you don't get them, it makes the innings tougher."
On his way out of Comerica Park, Davis declined comment when informed of Girardi's remarks. But Sabathia and his teammates said what needed to be said, anyway. They said what the manager himself should have conceded.
Russell Martin: "I felt like [Sabathia] hit his spot more than once and we didn't get the call. But once again, [Davis] was consistent."
Mark Teixeira: "There's pitches almost every game that aren't strikes that are called strikes, but that's not why we lost."
Sabathia: "I've just got to make pitches, and I tried to do the best I could to make pitches. It just didn't work out tonight."
It didn't work out mostly because Verlander lasted eight full innings to Sabathia's five and a third. The winning ace struck out 11, walked three and needed all of 10 pitches to whiff Jorge Posada, Martin and Brett Gardner in the fifth.
Verlander struck out seven out of nine Yanks in the middle innings, and was still pumping it hard enough in the eighth to attack Alex Rodriguez with five consecutive fastballs traveling at least 100 mph. Verlander's 120th and final pitch came in at a mere 99 mph, and Teixeira popped it up.
"It seemed like Verlander got better once the game got going," Posada said.
And it seemed like Sabathia didn't.
CC didn't blame the weird run-up to this game, thanks to Friday night's weather, and he didn't blame the pitch he couldn't get called a strike (Martin identified it as the one on the outside corner to right-handed batters).
Deep down, Sabathia knows he faced a decidedly weaker lineup than Verlander did and still came up short. Sabathia knows he was the one who couldn't get the ball to his closer, Mariano Rivera, who's thrown three pitches in three games.
More than anything, Sabathia knows the guy to blame for the 2-1 division series deficit is the man in his own bathroom mirror. And that truth hurts more than the 100-mph fastball Verlander fired into Russell Martin's ribs.
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.
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