When Brian Cashman sat in CC Sabathia’s home 22 months ago, the Yankees’ general manager offered him a massive free agent contract and a tremendous opportunity. If Sabathia signed with the Yankees, Cashman told him, he could be the man to help guide them to multiple championships.
“I wasn’t leaving that house without a deal,” Cashman recalled. “It was like recruiting a player for college. You don’t leave without knowing you’ve got the player.”
Cashman got the player, got one of the best pitchers in baseball for $161 million. In Sabathia’s first year with the Yankees, they also snagged a championship. Now, as the Yankees prepare for Game 1 of the Division Series against the Twins Wednesday night, Sabathia is the big man on campus for the Yankees once again.
For the Yankees to repeat as champions, they will surely need a superb effort from Sabathia. If Sabathia struggles, especially in more than one game, it is difficult to imagine the Yankees being able to overcome that stumble. After Sabathia, the Yankees have an uncertain rotation. Andy Pettitte has been rusty since being activated, Phil Hughes has never started a postseason game and A.J. Burnett is so lost that he won’t start in the first round.
While Pettitte, who unleashed a slick cutter and whiffed eight in his last start, and Hughes, who pitched six strong innings in his last start, could easily thrive, it wouldn’t be a shock if they had problems. It would be surprising if Sabathia faltered. It might also be devastating for the Yankees, who are trusting Sabathia, to pitch the opener and come back on short rest to start a possible Game 4.
“There are a handful of pitchers who you expect to win every time they start,” Cashman said. “CC is one of those pitchers.”
Because Sabathia is 6-foot-7-inches, weighs over 300 pounds and has one of the best fastballs in the Major Leagues, there is a tendency to categorize him as a power pitcher. Sabathia is a power pitcher, of course, but he is a lot more than that. He is smart and he is diverse. Sabathia isn’t the type of pitcher who relies on his fastball as he shrewdly analyzes situations, and sprinkles in sliders and changeups and even the occasional sinker or curveball.
Before Sabathia faced the Orioles in September, manager Buck Showalter told his players to be aware of how often Sabathia used his changeup as an out pitch. The Orioles pounded Sabathia for five earned runs and nine hits in a 6-2 win. Showalter said the idea that Sabathia, who was 21-7 with a 3.18 earned run average, was a pitcher that repeatedly pumped fastballs was erroneous.
“He’s not a thrower,” Showalter said. “He’s a guy who is out there pitching.”
The guy who is starting Game 1 for the Twins is Francisco Liriano. Liriano is trying to prove that he can match Sabathia as an ace and help push the Twins past a team that has foiled them in the postseason three times. Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing, who will start the first three games for the Twins, have never defeated the Yankees in their careers.
How unsure were the Twins about what to expect from Liriano this season? The Twins thought Liriano’s fastball-slider combination could help him succeed as a closer, so they asked him if he wanted to replace Joe Nathan, who had season-ending elbow surgery. Liriano said that he wanted to remain in the rotation, a decision that proved fortuitous as he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA.
Liriano’s fastball averaged 93.7 miles per hour, which was slightly harder than Sabathia’s fastball (93.5) and two miles harder than Liriano’s fastball during an ineffective 2009. But Liriano’s favorite pitch is his slider. How much does Liriano depend on it? Only Ervin Santana threw a higher percentage of sliders than Liriano, who threw the pitch 33.8 percent of the time. Liriano averaged 9.44 strikeouts per nine innings and also collected twice as many groundball outs as fly ball outs.
To conquer Liriano, one American League scout said the Yankees must force him to throw his slider and changeup for strikes early in the count. The scout said Liriano is successful when he induces hitters to swing at pitches that aren’t in the strike zone. When Liriano is ahead in the count, he loves to throw sliders that break out of the strike zone.
Sabathia was 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA as the Yankees marched to the World Series last season. Meanwhile, Liriano pitched two innings in the Division Series, the only postseason innings in his career. The AL scout said Liriano is a stellar pitcher, but the Twins must wonder how he will respond in the glare of the postseason.
“With CC, the Yankees know what they’re going to get,” the scout said. “You expect him to go out there and get the job done.”
That is exactly what the Yankees are hoping, hoping that Sabathia can guide them all the way to another title.
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