Facing ace of aces, CC must be aggressive
Yankees lefty aims to pitch efficiently against Tigers' Verlander
NEW YORK -- In one of the most anticipated pitching matchups of the playoffs, Yankees ace CC Sabathia will take the hill on Friday at Yankee Stadium against Detroit's American League Most Valuable Player Award candidate, Justin Verlander. But while Sabathia is expecting stiff competition in Game 1 of the AL Division Series at 8:37 p.m. ET on TBS, he knows he needs to focus on beating the Tigers' hitters, not on the opposing pitcher.
"It's really me against the Tigers," Sabathia said. "They have a great lineup. I need to just go out and not try to get caught up in what [Verlander's] doing and make sure that I'm making the pitches I need."
Indeed, that focus will be pivotal for the Yankees, who will start Sabathia again in Game 4 of the series should it be necessary. In eight playoff starts as a Yankee, the left-hander is 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA, having claimed the AL Championship Series MVP Award during the Yankees' 2009 World Series title run. In fact, Sabathia said he actually prefers the shorter timespan between starts in the playoffs to his schedule during the rest of the season.
"You sign up here to try to win championships, and you are expected to do that," Sabathia said. "I've always said once you go out and you've got a Derek Jeter and you've got [Mariano Rivera] out there and you have Alex out there, it takes a lot of pressure off any situation."
Though Sabathia finished the regular season behind only Verlander in the AL in strikeouts (230) and wins (19), and ninth in ERA (3.00), he closed the season struggling to pitch as deep into games as he had earlier in the year. Through his first 26 starts, Sabathia averaged 7 1/3 innings per game, a number that dropped to 6 2/3 his final seven times out. Though he's throwing about the same number of pitches, he simply hasn't been able to make it through opposing lineups as efficiently as he had been in the past.
"I'm going to try to make sure that I'm being aggressive in the strike zone," Sabathia said. "I felt like the last month I've been putting myself in bad counts and putting myself in hitters' counts and trying to make pitches. So you see me throwing 125 pitches in six innings, and that's not where I want to be."
"I have a ton of confidence in CC," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said when asked about Sabathia's recent issues. "This is a guy that's been doing it for a long time. He's a guy that gives you a ton of innings, but he gives you quality innings. You know he's not going to panic. If he gets in a tough situation, he's going to continue to make his pitches."
Sabathia will have to contend with a Tigers lineup that finished fourth in the AL in runs with 787 and third in batting average (.277). Chief among his concerns will be Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who hit .429 with six home runs and a .532 on-base percentage in September. Cabrera won his first batting title in 2011 and posted the AL's highest on-base percentage (.448) for the second time in as many seasons. More than just an on-base machine, Cabrera reached the 30-homer plateau for the fifth year in a row and finished the season with a .586 slugging percentage, second best in the AL.
Making matters worse for Sabathia, Cabrera has teed off on the lefty in 22 prior plate appearances. The right-handed hitter is batting a lifetime .563 against Sabathia with two home runs, 11 RBIs and a 1.000 slugging percentage.
"We understand the type of hitter Miguel Cabrera is and how you have to be careful with him," Girardi said. "We will be careful with Miguel Cabrera."
Even so, there is no pitcher the Yankees' clubhouse would prefer in Game 1. With the inexperienced Ivan Nova and the veteran Freddy Garcia behind him in the rotation, it will be imperative for Sabathia to give his team a strong outing at Yankee Stadium.
"A billion percent -- infinity," right fielder Nick Swisher said when asked how much confidence he and his teammates have in Sabathia. "He's that type of guy, he's proven that. I think it's one of those things where you earn that right. He's come over here, he's done exactly what everybody thought he would do.
"I'm glad he's on our side."
Aaron Taube is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.