Yankees turn to CC the Lionheart

BOSTON -- To Alex Rodriguez, No. 52 is No. 1.

When A-Rod talks about CC Sabathia, his eyes grow as large as softballs. His voice rises with excitement as admiration flows, word after positive word.

"As far as in here, he is the greatest teammate you could ever have," Rodriguez said. "He is just a big teddy bear. But out there, he is a lion."

That is the perfect description of Sabathia. He is beloved in the Yankees' clubhouse and feared on the mound. He is a 6-foot-7 giant who is docile, laughing and smiling for four days, and then roars on the fifth day.

"Pretty accurate, I guess," Sabathia said when told of Rodriguez's words. "There is something about the competition that brings out a lot of emotion in me and wanting to win and wanting to be good that changes my personality."

Sabathia (0-0, 1.38 ERA) will go to the mound Sunday night, trying to continue his recent dominance of the Red Sox. In his last seven starts against Boston, he is 4-0 with a 2.72 ERA. The Red Sox have hit just .191 against him in that stretch. Red Sox left-handed hitters are batting .095 (4-for-42) against him.

In Rodriguez's estimation, athleticism is what makes Sabathia -- and No. 1 starters, in general -- so special.

"I think most people don't realize what a great athlete he is," Rodriguez said. "I think most No. 1s, I think the No. 1 ingredient is you have to be a great athlete. If you are not, that probably drops you to No. 2."

Even after knee surgery, Sabathia can still dunk a basketball. In his normal offseason preparation, Sabathia trains like a power forward, doing spot-up shooting drills a few times a week to combat the boredom of the treadmill and the stationary bike.

After having his knee operation this offseason, Sabathia didn't go to a mound to find out if he was ready for the season. He went to the basketball court in his house, skied toward the rim and threw down a slam.

"That's how I knew my knee was ready for spring training," Sabathia said. "That is usually my test to get ready for spring, and feel like I'm in pretty good shape."

What separates Sabathia from other big guys is his coordination, making him almost Ruth-like to A-Rod.

"He is a great basketball player," Rodriguez said. "You see him field bunts. He hits balls 450 feet. This guy is a lot more than anyone would ever give him credit for. I've seen him dunk and I've seen him hit a ball 400 feet.

"When he was in Milwaukee, he hit a couple of bombs that were unbelievable. He will hit a ball in the upper deck as far as any left-handed hitter we have. The guy is amazing."

What might be Sabathia's most amazing quality is how he acts. Despite his athletic prowess, his money and his fame, Sabathia may be the most cordial player in the game. He never pulls a Reggie Jackson, checking media members' credentials before deciding to talk to them.

He is just jovial and polite. It is a quality Rodriguez notices across the room in the clubhouse. On the field, Sabathia is relentless. A-Rod knows it -- and the Red Sox do, too.