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Chance to rise in the fall

Sabathia has opportunity to quiet critics

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 7, 2009

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NEW YORK - This is your moment, CC Sabathia.

It’s your chance to quiet the critics who believe you run out of gas in the postseason. Time to show the world why the Yankees handed you a seven-year, $161 million contract in the offseason. It wasn’t so much for the 19-8 record and workhorse 230 innings you compiled in the regular season.

It was for this. And if this doesn’t work out, then you’ll get all kinds of heat for not winning in October.

“I think maybe just trying to go out and do too much,’’ Sabathia said when asked why his postseason numbers (2-3, 7.92 ERA) don’t match his regular-season brilliance. “Trying to go out and throw shutouts and throw no-hitters and things like that instead of going out and doing the same things I’ve done during the regular season, which is throwing strikes early in the count, pounding the zone from both sides of the plate and going out and putting up zeroes and letting the team score runs.’’

Sabathia is not unlike Roger Clemens early in his career. Clemens expended so much of himself in the regular season - going deep into games, high pitch counts - that by the time October rolled around, there wasn’t much left in the tank. Sabathia was somewhat protected by the Yankees (he threw just two complete games) but still threw those 230 innings. He threw 241 in 2007 and 253 last season.

After going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA for the Brewers in 2008, Sabathia lasted only 3 2/3 innings, allowing six hits and five runs, in a start against the Dodgers in the National League Division Series. Don’t think Sabathia doesn’t kick himself for that outing and other lackluster postseason performances.

“Yes, they motivate me,’’ Sabathia said. “We had such a good year in Milwaukee. Nobody really gave us a chance to get in. Playing playoff games for the last 10 days [of the regular season in order to secure a postseason berth], I think it took a toll on us. We kind of ran out of gas during the playoffs. I think those experiences will make me better.’’

Sabathia pitched every fourth day the final four starts in 2008. He pitched 42 2/3 innings from Sept. 1 on last season and 37 2/3 innings this season. But he got lots of rest in September, pitching mostly on five and six days of rest. In his final start, a 19-8 loss to Tampa Bay, Sabathia was bombed for eight hits, nine runs (five earned) in just 2 2/3 innings on a day when he “just didn’t have it.’’ He’d better have it tonight.

“It’s definitely a good thing pitching on more days rest,’’ Sabathia said. “The last couple of times I had a week in between starts. It definitely helps to get that mental break of being able to come to the field and relax for a couple of days.’’

What’s also different this year is that Sabathia is on a team with an elite offense. The Yankees can score runs even if Sabathia doesn’t have his best stuff and falls behind.

“Any time you look up and you have [Derek] Jeter, [Johnny] Damon, Tex [Mark Teixeira], A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] the first four hitters, you feel pretty good,’’ said the big lefty. “That’s the kind of attitude I’ve taken all year where I’m not going out and trying to do too much but try to get back into the dugout as soon as possible so these guys can go out and score seven runs in an inning.’’

Sabathia also feels more prepared by having pitched the entire season in a big market. He believes his past postseason struggles, pitching in high-pressure New York, and experiencing the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry firsthand have all played a part in his preparedness.

“Some of those games we played against Boston are like playoff games,’’ Sabathia said. “That Opening Day probably felt like tomorrow night will. So I’ve had these experiences over the year. And I think I’m ready for it.’’

Sabathia didn’t seem fazed by not knowing who his opponent would be until last night.

“I pitched against both teams a lot since I spent so much time in the Central Division with Cleveland for about 7 1/2 years, so I know a lot about these guys,’’ he said. “So I’ll watch the game and come in and get ready with [Jorge] Posada and put together a game plan for tomorrow night.’’

Sabathia is one of the most respected pitchers in baseball. The Red Sox have nothing but glowing things to say about him. Terry Francona often shakes his head in awe after a Sabathia outing.

What we’ll soon find out is whether the Yankees have cured Sabathia’s postseason ills by giving him more rest.

Sabathia’s manager isn’t worried about his ace’s last outing against Tampa Bay or his postseason record.

“I feel good about where CC is right now,’’ said Joe Girardi. “One of the things we tried to do in the month of September is slow his innings down. When you go through the postseason as a player, you learn something about yourself and ways to handle situations better. And you are usually facing the cream of the crop.

“He was always matched up against their No. 1 as well. But we feel really good about the way he’s thrown the ball for us and his comfort level moving forward and that we really didn’t have to exhaust him in the month of September.’’

Indeed, if Sabathia fails again tonight, it won’t be because of fatigue.

He’s had plenty of rest.

Now, it’s time to thrust himself into an elite category. Only a great postseason run can accomplish that.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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