Commentary

Sabathia driven by 'an ace mentality'

Lefty strives to put past playoff failures aside, and motivated to lead Yankees to title

Originally Published: October 7, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The tallest man in New York is surrounded on all sides by the consequences of failure. On this late September afternoon, he throws a fastball by Victor Martinez, a man with whom as a member of the Cleveland Indians he once very nearly danced to the World Series.

Cleveland, or what it represents, haunts so many of them, CC Sabathia in particular. Martinez now wears a Red Sox jersey, part of the massive sell-off that began with the trading of Cy Young winners Sabathia in 2008 and Cliff Lee in 2009. All three are now in the playoffs with three different teams while the Indians lie broken, a vase shattered into a million pieces, fallen from slippery fingers two years ago.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia tied for the AL lead with 19 wins this season, but is 0-3 in his last three postseason starts.

Sabathia will beat the Red Sox in this game, and in the days following Eric Wedge, his manager of that Cleveland club, once so close, will also be fired, everyone wondering what life would've been like had the Indians not lost that 3-1 lead to Boston in the 2007 American League Championship Series with the potentially clinching Game 5 at home and Sabathia on the mound.

These days, the tempting aromas of success wisp sweetly around Sabathia, in perfect counterbalance. Near the backstop, the epitome of it all -- indeed, still the only example of a player's actually beating the odds with the Yankees -- is pantomiming golf lessons for the high rollers. The ones who can afford season tickets at Yankee Stadium get tips on their backswings from Reggie Jackson. Immortality is why Sabathia came here.

The Yankees begin another postseason and the mind games are everywhere. In October, the Los Angeles Angels haven't been able to conquer the Red Sox. The Yankees haven't been able to conquer the Angels, and Sabathia, recently, has not been able to conquer himself. The Yankees bet everything on the 2009 season, but Sabathia's biggest challenge is not the immense New York pressure -- 19 wins in his New York debut, brilliant during the humid summer months when the Yankees separated from the rest of the league -- but overcoming his own postseasons past.

Sabathia, 29, knows the numbers, hears the conversations. His career ERA is 3.62, but his career postseason ERA -- 25 innings over five starts -- is 7.92. That Game 5 was the second time in the '07 ALCS he'd gone up against Boston ace Josh Beckett and lost. Up three games to one, the Indians lost the final three games of the series by scores of 7-1, 12-2 and 11-2.

But with Sabathia, it is all of that and more. He is the best pitcher in baseball to have produced, thus far, the least results in the postseason. Instead of shrinking, choosing a smaller, less intense market with his freedom, he chose to come to New York, where the postseason means the most, where the judgments are harshest.

The big man does not duck from any of it. He does not flinch, not from the expectation of winning the World Series, not from the salary-must-equal-perfection attitude of most fans, not from the doubts that dog him each time his postseason results have undermined his regular-season greatness.

"Keep grinding," Sabathia says hours before the Yankees will beat the Red Sox again, this time clinching their 100th win, the American League East title, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, leaving him doused in celebratory beer and champagne spray by afternoon's end. "Each year, the circumstances change. In the playoffs, everything is more magnified. So you have to keep it as simple as possible. When people ask, 'What happened? What went wrong? Why didn't it go well in 2007? What didn't you do?' I just tell the truth: I pitched bad. I pitched bad in a playoff game. And you think about it all the time, you learn from the experience and you want to get back to it. Now, I'm getting back to it."

There is a feeling of foreboding around New York, that it all has to happen this year, that first World Series title since 2000, even more than the annual overheating that smothers New York City baseball. For all their history and muscle and mystique, the Yankees have not yet recovered from losing a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS. The Red Sox have won two championships since then and the Yankees have sputtered ever since: consecutive first-round losses to the Angels ('05), Tigers ('06) and Indians ('07), no playoff appearance in 2008 for the first time since 1993 (the postseason was canceled in 1994 by the players' strike).

So much of Sabathia's eight-year, $161 million contract (and A.J. Burnett's $82 million and Mark Teixeira's $180 million) represented an investment in exorcising that demon. And it is not just them: Manager Joe Girardi and the entire front office felt as though they were put on notice from the first day of spring training.

"He's not going to back away from it. I don't have any concerns about CC. We did so much extensive research on him," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "He's been an open book. No surprises. You know that no matter what, he's going to give you everything he's got. He's going to give you 100 percent effort."

Brian Cashman He's not going to back away from it. I don't have any concerns about CC. You know that no matter what, he's going to give you everything he's got. He's going to give you 100 percent effort.

-- Yankees GM Brian Cashman

Sabathia, with relentless fury, carried Milwaukee to the playoffs last year and in turn the Yankees signed him to a super-sized free agent contract -- Burnett and Teixeira, too. The pressure seems -- even by New York standards -- to have reached the suffocating point. They have all lived with it this summer.

"CC has been totally different," said Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon. "He's been the guy we've turned to. He's the guy who fit in and made sure that everyone was comfortable. You have clubhouses that have their cliques. He's the guy who can cross each of the cliques and bring everyone together."

If it is possible, forget Reggie for the moment. It is true that he is, 31 years after winning his last World Series ring in New York, the only one to have conquered the beast: the big-money free agent or big trade acquisition brought to New York to be The Guy who came out on the other side drenched in champagne. Dave Winfield didn't do it. Rickey Henderson didn't do it. Jason Giambi didn't do it. Neither did Randy Johnson or Mike Mussina. And five full seasons later, neither has Alex Rodriguez as of yet.

Reggie was already a legend when he got here -- he had three titles, added two more with the Yankees -- but Sabathia is something entirely different. He came to New York of all places to face his own form of hell: a rough postseason.

"I think it's part of your DNA, that wanting to be the guy. And there doesn't have to be an analytical reason," Jackson said. "CC has it. You watch the way he carries himself. It isn't even whether you do it each time out. It's the knowing that you aren't afraid of the moment. People you play with, they can tell when you're afraid of it. It's part of a guy's makeup."

Sabathia won his first two career postseason starts, as a rookie against a Seattle team that won 116 games in 2001 and then in Game 1 against the Yankees in the 2007 Division Series, only to lose his last three -- the two against the Red Sox in 2007 and one against the Phillies last year. If there is a postseason characteristic that veers from his regular-season profile, it is wildness. For his career, he averages 2.8 walks per nine innings. In the postseason, the number jumps to 7.9. In 25 playoff innings, he's issued 22 walks.

And yet despite his fall numbers, he has easily proven that he can be a great pressure pitcher. In August and September -- as the Yankees made their move -- Sabathia solidified his position as the ace of the pitching staff, posting a 9-0 record with a 2.04 ERA while the Yankees dusted the Red Sox and the rest of the American League.

"It gives you a sense of confidence when he's out there. He's a streak stopper. You have a lot of confidence when CC takes the mound," Girardi said. "He's been everything you could ask for in an ace. He's brought the pitching staff together and more. One of the things aces do is pitch well at a high level. There's a different kind of energy when he's out there."

It was reminiscent of a year ago, when with Milwaukee he went 9-2 with a 1.56 ERA after the All-Star break. In August 2008, Sabathia was 5-0 with a 1.12 ERA. The Brewers hadn't been to the postseason since the Rollie Fingers-Robin Yount-Cecil Cooper team of 1982, and Sabathia famously pitched on short rest for the final two weeks of the season.

Against Philadelphia in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Sabathia was hit so hard -- allowing five runs in the second inning, and lasting just 3 2/3 innings -- that it seemed obvious to baseball observers that he was exhausted, the effort to get Milwaukee to the playoffs maximized.

Joe Girardi It gives you a sense of confidence when [CC's] out there. He's a streak stopper. … One of the things aces do is pitch well at a high level. There's a different kind of energy when he's out there.

-- Yankees manager Joe Girardi

"Everyone talked about the Brewers running me out there every day until my arm fell off. That wasn't the case," he said. "That was me who wanted that. [Ben] Sheets went down, and I really didn't have a choice. The only way to validate how hard those guys worked was to get to the playoffs. You talk about a team that was close. I was there a few weeks and it felt like I had been there for years."

Sabathia relishes the opportunity to begin anew, on the big stage. He recalls his moment of clarity when he perhaps took the game a bit for granted and refocused.

"I've always had an ace mentality. It started in high school when you first want to be the guy who takes the ball in big games," he said. "It changed for me in the big leagues mid-2005. I had been struggling for the whole first half. After Bartolo [Colon] left, I was supposed to be that guy, the highly touted prospect, who had to throw 250 innings. And I put too much pressure on myself. It was in Seattle, when it all came together. I just said to myself, 'Forget this.' I felt like I had to be more committed. Get everything you can out of your talent. Don't be the guy who didn't use everything he had."

Ellis Burks, his former teammate in Cleveland, says no pitcher is better positioned mentally to make a run at a title in New York. Damon says the psychology of the postseason -- the past, really -- does not apply much to Sabathia because of the mitigating circumstances for each playoff round. This year, with 103 wins and a division title, Sabathia has had plenty of rest. He's a contender for the Cy Young and he's healthy. All the variables, this year, are lined up in his favor.

"As for New York, I didn't even think about it," Sabathia says of the magnified scale of Yankees playoff baseball. "I've always had an ace mentality. Always. The only part of the decision was having a chance to win. When Cash came to my house, he told me that you were going to a team that every year was going to have a chance. I never thought about it being anything else.

"Everyone told me about how Randy struggled, and how hard it was on guys, but it's different people, different personalities. You're not going to see me push a camera out of my face and say, 'Get away from me,' because that's just not my personality."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42