ALDS GAME 5: KEY MOMENT
Baseball pundits have made a cottage industry out of criticizing the New York Yankees for the advanced age of their team as if the second a player turns 30 he starts hitting like Jose Molina or pitching like Kevin Millwood.
But one of the reasons they have a number of players who 30 years old or older is the same reason why CC Sabathia beat the Baltimore Orioles on Friday to advance the Yankees to the American League Championship Series.
In Sabathia’s first five postseason starts up to when he was age 28, he was 2-3 with a 7.92 ERA. In the past four postseasons with the Yankees up to age 32, Sabathia is 7-1 with a 3.09 ERA.
Entering the eighth inning of Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Orioles, Sabathia had given up just one hit and one walk while he had a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead.
But things began to look as if they were unraveling when Matt Wieters led off the inning with a solid single to left and Sabathia walked rookie Manny Machado on just five pitches.
From this point on in the inning, the game was at a tipping point because if any of the Orioles hit a home run at this juncture then the game would be tied. If Sabathia might have been a younger and less experienced pitcher in postseason play he might have cracked.
After a strikeout of Mark Reynolds, Lew Ford followed with a single to left to score Wieters.
Now if any Orioles hitter were to hit a home run, the Orioles would take the lead. You could bet there were a few Tums moments in the Yankee dugout for manager Joe Girardi. He wanted his ace pitcher to get out of this but he also realized that the team’s success was more important.
Crazy plays happen in baseball all the time. They pop up at strange moments like this and they did when Robert Andino bounced a ball to the right of Sabathia.
Sabathia sprang off the mound to field it but he realized that he could not throw the ball to third because Eric Chavez was not on the base. Andino has some speed so first would have been out.
So Sabathia threw the ball to second but Ford slid into the bag before the ball arrived.
A lesser experienced postseason pitcher might have completely unraveled at this point. The bases were full and there was only one out.
On top of that, the Orioles best hitter in the series, Nate McLouth, was up with nowhere to put him.
“It’s what I’m here for,” Sabathia said, “It’s what I play the game for. I guess I should feel a little pressure or something like that, but I don’t.”
Girardi had right-hander David Robertson throwing in the bullpen but he stuck with his experienced ace left-hander against McLouth even though McLouth had narrowly missed hitting a home run in the sixth inning.
A crowd of 47.081 huddled in the October chill crossing their fingers and praying Sabathia could hold onto this most precious of leads. The Yankees’ hopes for a 28th world championship were riding on it.
Sabathia had learned by the time he came to the Yankees there was a big difference between throwing and pitching. Early in his career, Sabathia could throw hard and so that is all he did. Now Sabathia throws less hard but he is even better because he mixes in his curve, his slider and change-up more.
That is what Sabathia did with McLouth.
His first pitch was a called strike, a slider at 83 miles per hour. McLouth then weakly fouled off a 95-mph fastball. After Sabathia tried a 82-mph slider in the dirt for a ball, he came back with a higher 82-mph slider with which McLouth was unable to make contact.
Sabathia then had face J.J. Hardy, a power-laden shortstop who bats right-handed.
The big left-hander started Hardy off with a change-up off the outside corner for a ball. He then muscled up on a 94-mph fastball that challenged Hardy but Hardy took it for a strike.
Sabathia then put Hardy into a huge hole by getting him to offer and miss at another change-up.
Then catcher Russell Martin and Sabathia agreed to try Sabathia’s trademark slider that runs down the middle of the plate like a fastball but takes an abrupt turn right and dives to the inside corner on a right-handed hitter.
Hardy did make contact, but all he could do was roll it weakly back to Sabathia. The veteran lefty moved about three steps toward first and flipped the ball gently to Mark Teixeira to get out of a harrowing bases-loaded jam with the game on the line.
“He was just dominant — he shows why he’s making all that money,” Martin said. “He’s the man. He’s the horse of this team. It’s fun to be back there and try to direct him. He’s been awesome.”
Girardi’s faith in his ace proved to be well-founded. Sabathia was able to pitch his way out of trouble instead of throwing as hard as he could like he did when he could hit 98-mph on the radar gun.
Sabathia would go on to retire the Orioles in the ninth for his first postseason career complete game and the Yankees rode his back into the American League Championship Series.
Along with Sabathia, the Yankees have Andy Pettitte as a starter at age 40 and Hiroki Kuroda at age 37. But do not mistake the advanced age of their pitchers to be synonymous with old, washed up has-beens.
The reason why the Yankees win in the playoffs is because their pitchers and their players like Raul Ibanez at age 40 do not panic. They simply play the game and let it come to them instead of trying too hard.
Sabathia proved that in the eighth inning when he bent but did not break. He was tested but he remained calm. That is what experience gives you that raw talent could never surpass.
“He is our ace,” Girardi said. “That’s the bottom line. He has been there and done that.”