Commentary

Jacobs Field celebration or trip to Boston?

Originally Published: October 17, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- It takes a big man to own up to failure, and there's been no shortage of accountability in the American League Championship Series.

Red Sox starter Curt Schilling made the most noteworthy mea culpa, dropping by the interview room unannounced Saturday night in Boston and ripping himself for coming up small in a big game. Schilling's personal catharsis regarding his Game 2 performance came a night after Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia chided himself for a failure to challenge hitters and pitch with the requisite aggressiveness in Game 1.

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For the record, that's 316 career victories and 525 pounds worth of humility.

In this case, the schedule favors Sabathia. He's next in line to pitch, so he's got the pole position for redemption.

With the Indians leading Boston 3-1 in the ALCS, Sabathia has a chance to kick off a celebration at Jacobs Field and send the Indians to their first World Series since Jim Thome, Matt Williams and David Justice were pounding opponents into submission in 1997.

I feel fresh. My arm feels good. I really can't point to that and say it's the reason why I haven't been good these last two games.

--Indians Game 5 starter C.C. Sabathia

The question is, which Sabathia will show Thursday night in Game 5? The hard-throwing, strike-dispensing machine who went 19-7 to insert himself in the thick of the Cy Young Award race, or the tentative C.C. who has a 10.61 ERA in two postseason starts against New York and Boston?

Sabathia's October stat line looks like something out of the Daniel Cabrera catalogue. He's thrown 106 strikes and 93 balls and lasted a total of 9 1/3 innings in two appearances, putting lots of strain on a Cleveland bullpen that's accustomed to kicking back and enjoying the view when he's on the slab.

Naturally, several theories are making the rounds for Sabathia's travails. Fatigue, for starters. Sabathia led the major leagues with 241 innings and ranked sixth in number of pitches thrown during the regular season. Factor in the playoffs, and Sabathia now leads the pack with 3,781 pitches thrown -- one more than Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs.

Sabathia has declined to use his onerous workload as an excuse for his lack of results, and he refused to take the bait again Wednesday.

"I feel fresh," he said. "My arm feels good. I really can't point to that and say it's the reason why I haven't been good these last two games."

Other possible explanations: (1) Sabathia is letting his emotions get the best of him, (2) he's too caught up in trying to make the perfect pitch rather than just letting the ball fly and (3) it didn't help that he had to cope with Bruce Froemming's minuscule strike zone during the Division Series.

During Wednesday's workout at Jacobs Field, Sabathia focused on details. He concentrated on staying taller in his delivery and throwing the ball downhill, after straying from that approach in Boston.

Sabathia certainly didn't seem uptight when he entered the Cleveland clubhouse shortly before batting practice, plopped down on a couch and caught a few minutes of the Rob Schneider comedy "Benchwarmers" on a big-screen TV.

The Indians say Sabathia, 27, is a different guy from the young pitcher who once got flustered by inconsistent umpiring or a broken-bat single. Nevertheless, catcher Victor Martinez will be monitoring Sabathia closely and is likely to make a mound visit or two if he sees Sabathia's heart pounding through his jersey.

"In the past, anything small could have taken him out of his game," Martinez said. "But it's not an issue for him or the team anymore. He knows what he needs to do to get out of jams now. He's definitely 100 percent mature as a pitcher."

Still, there's such a thing as a "statement" game, and if Sabathia is going to elevate his status, now is the time. He'll be taking on 20-game winner Josh Beckett before 44,000 supportive fans, with the added incentive of saving the Indians a trip to Boston -- where the mood can always shift from sunny to panic-stricken very quickly for an opponent.

C.C. Sabathia
Al Bello/Getty ImagesSabathia has allowed 11 earned runs and 11 walks in 9 1/3 innings in two starts this postseason.
If Sabathia needs a primer on how to beat the Red Sox, he might want to look at the performances of Cleveland's past two starters. Jake Westbrook tamed the Red Sox by throwing 21 of 27 first-pitch strikes in Game 3, and Paul Byrd went 17-of-21 in Game 4.

Sabathia, in contrast, threw 13 of 23 first-pitch strikes in the ALCS opener at Fenway. Not terrible by any means, but hardly befitting a guy with a reputation for pinpoint accuracy.

When the Red Sox assess the challenges of facing Sabathia, it's a daunting task. He throws in the mid-90s, and his slider and changeup are well above average. And any guy who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 290 pounds is bound to be a tad imposing.

"If you feel like you're a little long to the ball as a hitter, you're going to have to cheat a little bit, and that brings his changeup and slider into play," said Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan. "We're going to have to stay short to the ball. We've got to be ready to hit from the first pitch. We can't let him dictate the at-bat by going up there and being almost too patient and allowing him to work ahead in the count most of the game."

Boston manager Terry Francona's lone concession to Sabathia will be to start Bobby Kielty in place of J.D. Drew in right field. Sabathia's fellow Indians watched him beat Minnesota's Johan Santana four times this season, so they're confident he'll rise to the occasion against Beckett.

"Everybody talks about C.C. Sabathia and his talent level, but he's a really smart guy," Byrd said. "He's learned how to make adjustments, and he's survived up here on more than just stuff.

"I talked to [Kansas City's] Mike Sweeney the other day, and that's one of the things he said is so impressive about C.C. The guy throws 95, 96 and 97, and here he is throwing 2-0 changeups and he's pitching. That's what makes him so special."

There's a long-term subplot still waiting to play out with Sabathia beyond the 2007 postseason. Like Santana, he's eligible for free agency after the 2008 season. Given the massive contracts signed by Barry Zito and Zambrano in the past year, it's staggering to think what the Minnesota and Cleveland aces might fetch on the open market.

Will the cost-conscious Indians pony up to sign Sabathia to a long-term contract, allow him to play out next season and leave town, or even contemplate trade offers this winter rather than letting the saga go to the very end? That's a story for another day.

"We believe strongly in C.C. and are proud of all that he has accomplished -- as a pitcher and a man," said Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro. "C.C. has made it clear he wants to remain here and our desire is the same. When it is appropriate to address offseason business, his status will be a priority. Until then, our sole focus remains this club's efforts on the field."

Fair enough. A spot in the World Series awaits, and Sabathia and Beckett are ready to display their Cy Young wares at the Jake. October matchups don't get much better than this.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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