Commentary

Sabathia lacks usual sharpness

Utley's homers, command issues doom Yankees' lefty, but will he start Game 4?

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- If the Yankees decide to pitch CC Sabathia on three days' rest in Game 4, they'll need him to pitch just a little bit better than he did in Game 1.

Not that he pitched poorly, holding the Phillies to four hits and two runs in seven innings. That's the sort of World Series performance that often gets a pitcher the victory, media praise and winter appearances on the Letterman and Leno shows. But two of those hits were home runs, and Sabathia also pitched from behind in the count much of the night. And, well, he has pitched so extraordinarily well in the postseason, and been so tough at Yankee Stadium for most of the season (his last loss here was July 2), that it was a little surprising to see him struggle in any manner at all.

"It sucks," Sabathia said. "You want to come out and try to set the tone early for the series. …

"I had three walks and I was behind everybody. I wish I could stand here and say it was just two pitches, but I was behind most of the whole game. I was able to battle back and make the pitches when I needed to, but that's not at all how I've been pitching in the postseason."

Keeping his excitement level down has been an issue for Sabathia in big games -- he walked 22 batters in 25 postseason innings before this year and walked five in his first regular-season start with the Yankees -- but it hadn't been a problem this postseason. Sabathia won his three previous starts this month and was named the ALCS MVP after holding the Angels to a run in eight innings in each of two victories.

But in his first World Series start Wednesday, he fell behind so often -- two walks in the first inning -- that his pitch count was at 59 after just three innings.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia was having trouble throwing strikes, going to three-ball counts on nine hitters.
And even when he got ahead, things didn't work out. He was ahead of Chase Utley 0-2 in the third and sixth innings, and each time Utley wound up homering for the only two runs Philadelphia needed.

"The first home run, he just had a good at-bat," Sabathia said. "He had a pitch up over the plate and he put a good swing on it. The second home run was just my fault. An 0-2 pitch and just a fastball down the middle. I was trying to go up and in and yanked it back over the plate."

Sabathia's command improved as the game went on, but he was at 113 pitches after the seventh inning and manager Joe Girardi went to the bullpen.

"Physically, he's fine and we'll make that decision when the time comes," Girardi said when asked whether Sabathia will pitch Game 4. "We're not going to rush to any decisions after one game, that's for sure. But physically, I think he's good."

Sabathia was New York's workhorse this season after becoming the first of the Yankees' major free-agent signings in the offseason (along with starter A.J. Burnett and slugger Mark Teixeira). Sabathia threw 230 innings in the regular season, and he's had to adjust his schedule throughout this postseason. He started Game 1 of the division series on four days' rest, Game 1 of the ALCS on eight day' rest, Game 4 of the ALCS on three days' rest, Game 1 of the World Series on seven days' rest, and his next start will be on either three or four days' rest.

If those varying days of rest pose a challenge, Sabathia wasn't saying. "You feel strong and throw enough bullpens to be able to go out there and put a good performance together," he said.

The issue facing the Yankees isn't so much whether Sabathia can pitch effectively on three days' rest again but whether their middle relievers can bridge the gap from the starters to closer Mariano Rivera. The Yankees' middle relief has been so ineffective this postseason that Girardi has gone with his starters as long as possible. And for good reason. Phil Hughes struggled yet again and walked the only two batters he faced in relief of Sabathia.

I've had enough rest this postseason that I'll be ready to go whenever they need me.

-- CC Sabathia, about pitching on three days' rest

"He missed a little with his fastball tonight," Girardi said. "We'll continue to talk to him. I mean, he's been great for us all year. He walked two guys and ended up hurting us tonight, but we still believe in him."

Damaso Marte pitched well, retiring the two batters he faced, but David Robertson and Brian Bruney followed with poor outings. In all, the bullpen gave up four runs in just two innings to pretty much end the chances of a New York comeback.

If the middle relief doesn't improve, it will be imperative for Sabathia to be on top of his game for his next start this series … whether that is Game 4 or Game 5.

"I'm fine," Sabathia said. "I've had enough rest this postseason that I'll be ready to go whenever they need me."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com