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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Motivated Sabathia set to open '08

Fresh off Cy Young campaign, ace eyeing title, big payday

A blazing fastball came naturally to C.C. Sabathia.

A fine physical form did not.

That he was able to log 256 1/3 innings last season, between the regular season and the playoffs, is a testament to the work Sabathia has done to condition himself for baseball's grind.

"It's all work, because my genes are terrible," the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Sabathia said. "Look at me. I have to work my butt off just to look like this."

And Sabathia, the Tribe's starter for Monday's season opener against the White Sox at Progressive Field at 3:05 p.m. ET, will have to work even harder this season to meet the high standards he's set for himself.

With an American League Cy Young trophy sitting in his Fairfield, Calif., home, Sabathia is a marked man now.

He knows his adored award will make him a target.

"I'm sure they're going to be out to get me," Sabathia said of opposing hitters. "But the only thing to my advantage is it just motivates me more and makes me want to get it even more. It makes you want to be recognized like that again."

Not that he'll discuss it much, but Sabathia has other motivation to pick up where he left off in '07, when he went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA in 34 regular-season starts. His free-agent clock is ticking, and big bucks are looming as long as he stays healthy and keeps performing like the ace he's become.

It remains to be seen if those big bucks will come from the Indians, who over the offseason offered Sabathia a four-year extension through 2012 worth between $17 and $18 million a year. That offer wasn't enough to sway Sabathia to even prolong contract talks through Spring Training, so it's clear he wants more.

The Indians might consider adding a fifth year to their offer, depending on how this season goes, but even that might not be enough to sway him to stay.

This season, then, has the potential be remembered as Sabathia's walk year -- his final season with the organization that drafted him at 17 years old.

But Sabathia hopes it's remembered as the year he helped lead the Tribe to its first World Series title in 60 years.

The Indians fell just short of a Series berth last year in large part because Sabathia struggled on the October stage. He's the first to admit he let the inherent magnitude of the American League Championship Series get to him, and it showed when he went 0-2 with a 10.45 ERA in two starts against the Red Sox.

"I was just overdoing it," Sabathia said. "I was trying to go out and throw every pitch 100 mph. That's something I used to do when I was 20, 21, 22 years old, not 26 or 27. That's the main reason I didn't have any success in the postseason."

Sabathia, though, had plenty of success in the regular season, because of his cool head and his ability and confidence in throwing all his pitches for strikes. He walked 37 batters over 241 regular-season innings.

The biggest change in Sabathia in recent years is his newfound willingness to throw his changeup to right-handed hitters at virtually any count.

"That's been helping a lot the last couple years," he said. "[Catcher Victor Martinez] is not afraid to call it at any time."

Sabathia probably isn't afraid to face the White Sox, considering he's 14-3 with a 3.48 ERA in his career against them, including a 2-0 record and 2.57 mark last year.

Nor is he afraid that the massive amount of innings he pitched last season will slow him down this year. The Indians had him work every fifth day throughout the spring season -- rather than every fourth day early on, like his peers in the rotation -- to ease the burden on his arm. He'll also have an extra day of rest between starts twice in April, as a result of the off-days built into the Indians' schedule.

In fact, all Sabathia, who will be making his fifth career Opening Day start, seems concerned with is pitching to his strengths. If he does that, the wins will come just as naturally as that fastball did.

"If I can just go out and pound the strike zone like I did last year and keep my walks down," Sabathia said, "I'll be all right."

And so will the Indians.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.