CLEVELAND — The Yankees haven’t seen C.C. Sabathia since the 2004 season. When he takes the mound tonight for Game 1 of the Division Series at Jacobs Field, they’re hardly going to be able to recognize him.
At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Sabathia is still the imposing figure with the high-octane heater that he’s always been. But now he’s a pitcher, not the guy that faced New York back in the day who relied on his fastball and anger to carry him through.
“It’s just getting older, being more mature,” said Sabathia, who began his big league career as a 21-year-old kid with a can’t-miss label. “In the past, I’d get real emotional. I let my emotions get to me. The umpire making a bad call would affect the way I threw the next pitch, things like that.
“I let it all go and focus on what I can control, everything leading up to the pitch, and make sure I’m in the right position to make a good pitch. And after that, whatever happens, happens.”
What happened for Sabathia this year was a breakout season that played a major part in Cleveland returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
In going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and ranking among the leaders in nearly every statistical category for a starting pitcher, Sabathia not only became a strong candidate to win the American League’s Cy Young Award, but the big left-hander also established himself as a true ace — one that belongs alongside the game’s best.
The Yankees, who will bring one of baseball’s best lineups to the party, know they’re getting the new-and-improved version of Sabathia.
“He’s a great pitcher,” said Yanks outfielder Johnny Damon. “He’s not that thrower that he was when he first came into the league. You know he’s going to hit spots and he’s going to keep runners off the bases. It’s going to be tough on us.”
“He’s much more polished now,” said Yankees manager Joe Torre. “He’s a horse, no question about it. They ride him all the way, and he’s given them everything they needed.”
Though Sabathia hasn’t faced New York much in his seven-year career, the results have not been favorable — 1-7 with a 7.13 ERA in eight starts. But his record and long layoff against the Yankees won’t be much of a factor, according to Jeter.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t think it matters who he pitches against. He’s pitched well against everybody this year. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game.”
Sabathia’s Game 1 counterpart, Chien-Ming Wang, is no slouch either.
Like Sabathia, Wang, who also is a Cy Young candidate after winning 19 games for the second consecutive season, has not faced his Game 1 opponent this year, last pitching against the Indians in 2006.
Still, Cleveland hitters know what to expect from the 27-year-old right-hander.
“He’s got one of the best sinkers in the game,” said Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner. “He throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground. You just look for a pitch you can drive.”
Though he’s not the usual dominant ace New York has employed in the past, the Yankees believe in their No. 1 starter.
“He’s been as consistent as anyone we have,” Jeter said. “He’s kept us in almost every game he’s pitched. The thing about him is that even when he gets in trouble, he can get out of it with one pitch.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”
Not surprisingly, the Indians have confidence in their top starter as well, now that he’s a different pitcher.
“(C.C.’s) come a long way,” said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge. “He made some strong adjustments in, really, every facet of his game and he’s just been able to carry that through.
“He does a great job of commanding the baseball game, and in order to command the baseball game, you’ve got to be able to command each inning, and you’ve also got to command each at-bat. He does a pretty good job of that.”
Maybe the Yankees will finally get to see.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TODAY’S PROJECTED LINEUPS
Grady Sizemore CF
Asdrubal Cabrera 2B
Travis Hafner DH
Victor Martinez C
Ryan Garko 1B
Jhonny Peralta SS
Kenny Lofton LF
Franklin Gutierrez RF
Casey Blake 3B
C.C. Sabathia SP
Johnny Damon LF
Derek Jeter SS
Bobby Abreu RF
Alex Rodriguez SS
Jorge Posada C
Hideki Matsui DH
Robinson Cano 2B
Melky Cabrera CF
Doug Mientkiewicz 1B
Chien-Ming Wang SP
WHAT: Game 1, American League Division Series
TIME: 6:37 p.m.
WHERE: Jacobs Field
PITCHERS: Sabathia (19-7, 3.21 ERA) vs. Wang (19-7, 3.70)
TV/RADIO: TBS; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WKNR 850-AM