Sabathia seeks return to form in Game 5
Indians ace has struggled in first two starts of 2007 postseason
CLEVELAND -- The Indians are one game away from the World Series, and they have arrived at the brink even though their No. 1 starter has struggled lately.C.C. Sabathia has a 10.61 ERA so far in the playoffs, second highest among the 14 pitchers who have made at least two postseason starts. More puzzling is the fact that Sabathia has walked 11 batters, including two intentionally, in his 9 1/3 innings. That's inexplicable for a pitcher who walked just 1.38 batters per nine innings in the regular season, second lowest in the American League. "I'm still seeing the same guy I saw in the regular season," Indians catcher Victor Martinez said. "He just hasn't thrown the ball the way he wants to up there. He's having a little bit of a hard time throwing strikes. That's not him. If he doesn't throw strikes, especially with that team over there, they'll make him pay. That doesn't mean he needs to change big time. He'll be OK." Sabathia will get another chance to show he's all right when takes the mound for the Indians against the Red Sox in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at 8 p.m. ET on FOX on Thursday at Jacobs Field. A victory sends the Indians to the World Series for the first time since 1997, and Sabathia will be facing Josh Beckett in a rematch of Game 1. Sabathia lasted just 4 1/3 innings, allowing seven runs on eight hits and five walks, and was the losing pitcher in the Red Sox's 10-3 victory. "I was disappointed in the first game in Boston that I wasn't able to keep us in the game," Sabathia said before the Indians' workout at Jacobs Field on Wednesday. "That's something that I've been able to do all year. I didn't even give us a chance the other day. ... I just didn't make pitches. I got into some tough situations and didn't deliver." Since then, Sabathia has had a chance to watch Indians starters Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd give a clinic in Games 3 and 4 on how to go against the Red Sox hitters: be aggressive and throw strikes. "I think they did stuff to inspire this whole team," Sabathia said. "That's a tough lineup over there, and the way they pitched was unbelievable. I think it was just going out and trusting their stuff, knowing what they do well and sticking with it. That's something that I'm going to have to do [Thursday] night to be successful." The Red Sox's goal is to be patient, make the opposing pitcher work and drive up his pitch count early in the game. Boston fell short of that against Westbrook and Byrd, but the Red Sox were quite successful against Sabathia in Game 1. He threw 85 pitches in 4 1/3 innings. That played into the strength of a team that led the AL in walks and pitches seen per at-bat. "With C.C., we were able to be a little more patient," Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said. "He was working behind in the count a little bit more and getting the ball up. We had a good approach on him, staying inside the ball. With his velocity, he tends to make guys want to cheat a little bit to get to his fastball. "We were able to stay inside his fastball, take the base hit the other way or up the middle, and in turn, we were able to stay on his offspeed pitches a little bit better to recognize them. If we can do that, then we can have some good at-bats against him." There is another factor that has to be considered. To this point, Sabathia has thrown 3,780 pitches this season, the most by any pitcher in the Major Leagues. That includes the 199 pitches he has thrown in two playoff starts. Fatigue can not be discounted.
"I don't feel any different in my arm," Sabathia said. "I feel fine. I don't feel like I've thrown a lot of innings. I feel fresh. My arm feels good. I really can't point to that and say that's the reason why I haven't been good these past two games."Sabathia has done more than just sit around and watch his more successful teammates the past few days. He also had a side throwing session with pitching coach Carl Willis, working on standing taller on the mound and throwing downhill more. He said that gave him better command of his pitches on both sides of the plate. He did that in the safety and seclusion of the Indians' bullpen without an enemy hitter standing in the batter's box or paying customers in the stands watching him. That changes on Thursday night at Jacobs Field when a sellout crowd will show up hoping Sabathia can carry the Indians back to the World Series. Sabathia knows he can't get too overeager or excited, a problem that plagued him in his first playoff start against the Yankees in the AL Division Series. "Just stay calm," Sabathia said. "It's going to be loud in here, it's going to be fun. Everybody is going to be excited. But I've been doing a pretty good job of being able to keep my emotions under control, staying even keel all year. I look to stay calm and stay in control and not try to overthrow and do so much, and I think I'll be fine." That's all manager Eric Wedge wants. "The only thing we ask our starting pitchers to do is give us a chance to win the ballgame," Wedge said. "Anything beyond that is a bonus. When he's done or I take the ball from him, when he leaves the game, do we have a chance to win it? If he's done that, he's done his job. "Now, with C.C., I know that he feels like he needs to do more. He doesn't need to do more. All he needs to do is go out there and be himself and pitch the way he's capable of." He did that in the regular season. He hasn't yet in the playoffs.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.