April 19, 2014

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Sabathia’s struggles continue

CLEVELAND — The 112th and final pitch of C.C. Sabathia’s night bounced between a small patch of center field that separated Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez.
There was only a moment’s hesitation by Sizemore, who glanced ever so briefly at an oncoming Gutierrez, that slowed his charge — enough of a window to allow Kevin Youkilis’ long fly ball to drop for an RBI triple.
Sabathia retreated to the dugout and slammed his glove to the ground, concluding his third straight disappointing performance this postseason. The Cleveland Indians’ ace left-hander, a candidate for this year’s American League Cy Young Award, was slammed for 10 hits and four runs over six largely ineffective innings against the Boston Red Sox in a 7-1 Game 5 defeat Thursday night at Jacobs Field.
Sabathia was the Indians’ best pitcher this season. Indeed, he was arguably their best player, period. The
27-year-old has developed into one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers. His 19 victories were a career high, as were his major league-leading 241 innings. His 3.21 earned run average was a career low.
But as the calendar has turned to autumn, Sabathia’s regular-season dominance has curiously faded. His ERA now sits at 10.45. He’s allowed 15 runs in 151/3 innings.
The Red Sox didn’t quite batter the burly Sabathia, as they did in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Instead, they patiently chipped away, putting 12 runners on base and steadily driving his pitch count up.
“I can sleep tonight,” said Sabathia, defiantly. “This was not like the other night. I went after them and tried to do it my way. I just got beat tonight.”
When Sabathia retired Bobby Kielty in the top of the fifth inning on a long fly ball to right field to escape a bases-loaded jam, the Red Sox weren’t in the least bit animated in their disappointment. They already held a 2-1 lead and had their best pitcher, Josh Beckett, throwing a far more effective game.
More importantly, in only his third turn through the lineup, Sabathia had already thrown 93 pitches. For the second time this series, the Red Sox denied Sabathia what he does best: lasting deep into games and limiting opponents’ scoring opportunities.
In Sabathia’s two previous outings this postseason —  an American League Division Series victory over the Yankees and an ALCS Game 1 loss to the Red Sox in Fenway Park — he battled uncharacteristic wildness, allowing 11 walks in 91/3 innings. Sabathia had a better grasp of the plate on Thursday night, allowing only two walks.
Pitching coach Carl Willis said Sabathia is at his most effective when he’s throwing around 91 mph – nowhere near his max, with just enough touch to maintain his control.
Throughout the early innings, Sabathia was hitting 95 regularly.
“Actually, I didn’t even notice,” said Sabathia. “At one point, Birdie (Paul Byrd) came up to me and said, ‘Man you’re throwing pretty hard.’ I didn’t really realize it. I felt like I was doing my normal delivery.”
The Red Sox carefully chose when to attack Sabathia. Youkilis was the second batter of the game and took a first-pitch ball. On the next pitch, a high strike on the inside half of the plate, Youkilis unleashed a powerful cut that he sent over the left field fence.
“You’ve got to jump on hitter’s pitches,” said Youkilis, who had two hits and three RBIs. “It’s about battling each at-bat and trying to stay alive when you get two strikes, and try to get him out of the game as soon as possible with the pitch count.”
At times, Sabathia was frustrated by his inability to finish off batters despite favorable pitcher’s counts. In the second inning, Sabathia was ahead 0-2 to Jason Varitek. The Red Sox catcher battled back to 2-2, then was hit by an inside fastball on the right arm.
Sabathia, pounded his feet into the dirt, hulking over the mound. He would escape the second unscathed, but it was costly: he threw 22 pitches against four batters.
Indians manager Eric Wedge was faced with one of his toughest decisions of the postseason in the seventh inning. Sabathia had already thrown 108 pitches. But Wedge gambled on his workhorse and lost. Sabathia left two pitches up high in the zone, and Dustin Pedroia smacked a double and Youkilis followed with an RBI triple that would end his night.
“It didn’t work out, but C.C., I felt, worked through it and got a little bit better as the game wore on,” said Wedge. “He’s thrown 120 pitches before. He threw 110 a couple starts ago. It just didn’t work out.”
As Sabathia walked off the mound, he stared down into his glove, as if looking for some kind of elusive answer. That solitary stroll back to the dugout was about his only moment of control this postseason.
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.