CC's first start to be whole different story
Yanks' ace doesn't expect nerves like '09 Opening Day
TAMPA, Fla. -- With CC Sabathia's spare equipment serving as the only witness, the big left-hander took his first gulps as the Yankees' ace around this time last year, realizing what kind of responsibility it would be to serve as the franchise's Opening Day starter.
Sabathia had previously served as the first starter of the season five times with the Indians, but it wasn't until he watched a parade of road gray Yankees uniforms file past his locker last April that Sabathia realized he was forging new territory in New York.
"It was definitely nerve-racking," Sabathia said. "I didn't get really jittery and nervous until I looked around the clubhouse. I saw Sado [Jorge Posada] had his uniform on, and Jeets [Derek Jeter] had his uniform on, and it says 'New York' across the front.
"It kind of hits you that you are a Yankee. I tell everybody that story. I didn't really get nervous until I saw guys walking by with that uniform on. I just realized what was at stake."
The rest of that afternoon's experience was a flop, as Sabathia walked out to the baseball waiting for him in the visitors' bullpen at Baltimore's Camden Yards and proceeded to serve up six runs in a losing effort against the Orioles.
Now, he gets another chance to make that first impression. Sabathia is set to oppose Red Sox ace Josh Beckett in a nationally televised meeting at Fenway Park on Sunday night at 8:05 ET, one that will simultaneously kick off the Major League season as well as the Yankees' World Series title defense.
Sabathia's teammates might be surprised to hear of the thoughts that rattled through the hurler's mind as he prepared to make his Yankees debut, and with a year of duty under his belt, he will have to make sure the Red Sox don't see him sweat.
"The one thing that's for sure is there'll still be a lot of eyes on him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He understands what it's like to be a Yankee now and the expectations. He's lived through all that and did very well. For him, I would think that he would be more comfortable after going through it."
New York Yankees
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
|MI||RHP||Chan Ho Park|
Why not? New York is home now for Sabathia, entering the second year of a seven-year, $161 million contract that features an opt-out clause after 2011 -- one he has no intention of invoking.
Sabathia relocated his family to the suburb of Alpine, N.J., last season, when it became clear that he wanted to be a "real" Yankee. He was quickly accepted, getting the job done on the field to the tune of a 19-8 record and a 3.37 ERA in 34 starts, with two complete games.
The MVP of last year's American League Championship Series against the Angels, Sabathia was 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in five postseason starts, limiting opponents to three earned runs or fewer in each outing.
"I think he loves having the ball in big situations, the challenge of it," Girardi said. "I think he enjoys it. You can just see it. He loves that competitive feeling, going out there and being in a big game -- whether it was a playoff game or a game down the stretch. You could see that he really loved it."
After starting Game 1 in all three rounds of the playoffs, getting Game 1 of 162 is the fitting way to get rolling toward the ultimate goal of a World Series once again.
"You want to do it again, and this is the first step," Sabathia said. "It's Opening Day, we open the season, so you always get a little bit of butterflies. Last year was a lot, being new to the Yankees, but you still get the Opening Day jitters.
"It's going to be exciting. It's always exciting when you're going to Boston. I'm definitely going to have to keep my emotions in check and stay calm and throw strikes."
Girardi said that his adjustment period was brief with Sabathia, because he knew so much of him from his starring roles with the Indians and Brewers, but one aspect that impressed the manager was Sabathia's outward calmness.
Sabathia might have set a new Yankees record for most buddies gathered in the first weeks of camp last spring, organizing group outings for NBA games, barbecues and restaurant outings, and he continued to be one of the most popular Bombers again this spring.
That was why Posada could have been surprised that Sabathia ever glanced twice at the interlocking "NY" on every cap in the room, pondering how he arrived there. To Posada, Sabathia's struggles last April 6 in Baltimore (4 1/3 innings, six earned runs) might just have been due to extra emotions.
"I don't sense that he gets rattled or nervous," Posada said. "I just think he's nice and calm and looks forward to the challenge. He probably wants to do a little bit too much and throw a little bit harder than he needs, instead of letting the ball come."
Sabathia believes that he will be more prepared for this year's Opening Night start, though he doesn't believe there will ever come a day when those nerves aren't flowing just a little bit more for the first game under the bright lights.
"CC needs that," Posada said. "He needs the adrenaline. And he's going to get that in Boston."
There is absolute certainty that Sabathia will be booed vociferously when public-address announcer Carl Beane reads off his name and uniform number, informing the Fenway faithful that the Yankees' ace is warming up in the bullpen.
And this time, once the celebratory introductions are complete, Sabathia has every intention of picking up where he left off last season -- pitching winning baseball against one of the best lineups the game has to offer.
"I definitely want to go out and set the tone, and try to get us off on the right foot," Sabathia said. "It didn't happen last year, but things worked out for us. I'll try to go out and pitch my game. It's going to be crazy because it's going to be at Fenway, but it will be exciting."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.