Commentary

Bats, not CC, on hook in Game 5

If you believe Sabathia is key to ALCS, well, you haven't been paying attention

Updated: October 12, 2012, 8:44 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

It's only right that CC Sabathia should take the burden of the New York Yankees' 2012 season, which now comes down to Game 23 between them and the Baltimore Orioles, and place it squarely on his own broad shoulders.

After all, as Joe Girardi has said after so many Sabathia starts over the past four seasons, that's what aces do.

"It's time to go," Sabathia said in the wee hours of Friday morning, after the Yankees had lost a 4 1/2-hour, 13-inning marathon 2-1 to reduce their season to a single game. "This is a one-game playoff, and this is what we play for. I'll be excited and ready to go."

And that is what aces say, especially aces who are signed for the next five years at an average of $25 million a season. You know the standard line: "This is what we got him for."

But the truth is, the season is not on CC Sabathia's shoulders, or more accurately, his left shoulder.

It really belongs on the Yankees' lineup, because if the hitters were doing their jobs, Sabathia would not have to do his Friday afternoon, in a do-or-die game that, even if the Yankees win it, might fatally compromise their chances to advance any further.

The problem in this series against the Orioles has been anything but the starting pitching; in the first four games, Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and, Thursday night, Phil Hughes have combined for 30 2/3 innings and allowed eight earned runs, an aggregate ERA of 2.35.

And yet, after 166 games, the Yankees and Orioles are exactly where they were on Opening Day and exactly where they were for most of September -- in a flat-footed tie, with neither willing to cede control of the series and neither, seemingly, able to take control of it.

That's because in all four games of this division series, the teams have gone into the ninth inning either tied or separated by a run, and with the exception of the ninth inning of Game 1, when the Yankees exploded for five against Orioles closer Jim Johnson, it has been as easy for the Yankees to score runs as it would be to find a long hair on Girardi's head.

So now the season comes down to Sabathia? Oh, if only it were that simple.

The Yankees need Sabathia to pitch as well as he is capable of pitching for one very important reason: The first team to score two probably wins this thing and moves on to the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. The other team goes home.

On Thursday night, the Yankees were facing Joe Saunders, a mediocre left-hander who had pitched the game of his life five days earlier against the Texas Rangers in the wild-card play-in game to get the Orioles into the AL Division Series.

The Yankees had sick numbers off Saunders -- Derek Jeter, .455 with 2 HRs; Alex Rodriguez, .400 with 2 HRs; Raul Ibanez, .348 with 2 HRs; Russell Martin, .333 with a HR -- and he was expected to be low-hanging fruit for their high-priced and high-powered lineup.

And yet, when he left the game with two out in the sixth, the Yankees had managed all of three hits and one run, that scoring on an infield out.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireCC Sabathia has pitched like an ace recently.

Saunders' counterpart, Hughes, had pitched even better -- 6 2/3 innings, four hits and eight strikeouts, his only run allowed via his season-long bugaboo, the home run, this one hit by Nate McLouth in the fifth inning. And all Hughes had to show for it was a no-decision and the Yankees another one-run, extra-innings loss -- the kind of game the Orioles have excelled at all year.

So now it comes down to Sabathia? Only in part.

The big man pitched exceptionally well in Game 1, working to within one strike of a complete-game victory, scattering eight hits, striking out seven and allowing two runs in the Yankees' 7-2 win.

It extended a run of four games in which Sabathia has been more than an ace in name only, working at least eight innings in all four and allowing just six runs for an ERA of 1.65.

He hadn't been that kind of pitcher for most of the season but now, it seemed, he was rounding into form at just the right time for the Yankees.

Except for one thing: The Yankees' offense has not followed suit.

All season, this team has been plagued by an inability to manufacture runs on nights when it is not pelting the back wall of the bullpen with baseballs.

The Yankees' record in games in which they did not hit a home run was miserable -- 7-24 -- and their team-wide performance with runners in scoring position has been abysmal nearly up and down the entire lineup.

And for much of the season, Girardi and the hitters ridiculed those who pointed out this disturbing trend and what it might mean in the postseason, when most of the lousy pitchers had been weeded out of the competition and home runs would be at a premium. They twisted and dumbed down the argument so that it became "Home runs = bad," when in fact it really was "Home runs or nothing = very bad."

Again and again, we were told, "It's part of the game," and assured that any day now, this lineup would break out and begin scoring runs in bunches in many different ways.

Now, with one game in which to finally have that breakout, here are the numbers: Ichiro, .200 batting average, .200 on-base percentage; Robinson Cano, .111 BA, .158 OBP; Alex Rodriguez, .125 BA, .222 OBP; Nick Swisher, .133 BA, .222 OBP; Russell Martin, .214 BA, .353 OBP; and the worst offender of all, Curtis Granderson, .063 BA, .118 OBP and nine strikeouts in 16 at-bats.

So lost is Granderson at the plate that in the fifth inning, Girardi took the bat from the hands of his leading HR hitter, with 43 dingers, and asked him to bunt a runner over. He couldn't do that, either, and wound up striking out.

The Yankees finished 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and are 6-for-28 overall in the series.

"It's playoff baseball, and the games are extremely tight," Girardi said. "Usually, the difference in these games is one hit. It's been very good pitching. They've controlled the bats for the most part, and it's come down to one hit."

So much for predicting that big offensive breakout.

Considering the fact these teams now have played 22 times, each has won 11 and the score differential is a mere two runs -- 103-101 in favor of the Yankees -- the odds either team will advance to the next round riding the crest of a blowout is remote.

Game 5 probably will be as tight as Game 4 was, which was as tight as Game 3, which was as tight as Game 2, and, well, you get the idea.

So to rest the burden of the Yankees' 2012 season on the sturdy left shoulder of CC Sabathia is understandable, but hardly rational.

Sabathia wants the baseball because that's what aces do. And when asked whether he relished having all the pressure on him in a deciding game, he answered, "Of course I do," because that's what aces say.

But to believe that a good outing by Sabathia on Friday is the gateway to Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday, well, you just haven't been paying attention.

Sabathia can keep the Yankees in Game 5, but he can't win it for them.

The bats Joe Girardi believes so deeply in are going to have to do that, and after 166 games, they are down to their last chance.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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