- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

NEW YORK | These kinds of nights, with biting winds and big stakes, are when the New York Yankees find the final pieces for their World Series runs. They’re made for hard men with hard fastballs, who stand on the mound and sneer at all manner of obstacles until they’re no longer asked to do it.

When the Yankees spent $161 million on CC Sabathia last winter, it bore questioning whether they had paid for that kind of pitcher. Sabathia practically carried the Milwaukee Brewers to their first playoff berth in 26 years, but once he got there, he did what he usually had done in the playoffs: wilt.

Before arriving in New York, the 29-year-old had pitched in five postseason games, losing three of them and getting torched for a 7.92 ERA. Opposing batters had a .330 average and .464 on-base percentage against him, and in his last postseason start, he had gone just 3 2/3 innings. Quite simply, he didn’t look as if he would be able to deliver what the Yankees were compensating him so richly to do.

But in the Yankees’ first American League Championship Series game in five years, on the kind of night when Yankees pitchers make their mark, Sabathia made his.

His eight-inning masterpiece against the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 wasn’t so much an act of pitching virtuosity as it was an exhibition of sheer force. He dialed up one fastball after another, reaching the mid-90s until his 113th and final pitch, and lifted the Yankees to a 4-1 victory Friday at Yankee Stadium.

Oh, there were key moments from the Yankees’ vaunted lineup - and costly gaffes from the Angels’ defense - but this night belonged to Sabathia.

The big left-hander succeeded with a fastball-first approach that proved to be the best - if not the only - way to pitch in the cold weather. His four-seamer required less touch than Angels starter John Lackey’s slider, and the no-nonsense strategy took the charge out of the Angels’ running game.

“Tremendous,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “CC was ahead most of the game. I thought he used his fastball really well tonight, going in and out with it, mixing his other pitches. To pitch eight innings against this club and giving up one run, that’s impressive. He was sensational.”

Seventeen of the first 19 hitters Sabathia faced saw fastballs, and just four of them got hits. He didn’t face a three-ball count in that time and needed only 69 pitches - 48 of them strikes - to get through five innings.

He soldiered on through the sixth and seventh, striking out three more batters and finishing the seventh with a fierce pump of his left fist after fanning pinch hitter Mike Napoli on a change-up.

“That was a great feeling, to have the stadium rocking and chanting my name. I was pretty pumped up,” Sabathia said. “I don’t really show a lot of emotion most times, but I came out fired up.”

Then he came out for one final inning, inducing a pair of groundouts and a flyout on a 96 mph fastball to Bobby Abreu. Sabathia finished with just four hits, one run and one walk against seven strikeouts, throwing 76 pitches for strikes.

Lackey’s approach was riskier and came against a deeper lineup, but the right-hander’s greatest antagonist might have been his defense. The Angels allowed Johnny Damon an extra base in the first inning when Juan Rivera threw off-line to second base and Damon advanced after a single.

He was still at second two batters later when Hideki Matsui lofted a harmless popup between third baseman Chone Figgins and shortstop Erick Aybar. Figgins called for it, then backed off when it drifted closer to Aybar.

The shortstop couldn’t pick the ball out of the lights, and it fell at his feet as Damon scored.

“On that ball there, they should be able to figure out what the other guy’s doing,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “We just have to clean it up. It happens.”

Lackey picked his way through a methodical Yankees lineup in the middle innings, catching a break when Alex Rodriguez was thrown out at home after running through a stop sign. But in the sixth inning, Lackey’s mistakes provided an opening for Derek Jeter to widen the lead.

With the Angels down 3-1 in the sixth, Lackey walked Melky Cabrera for the second time, compounding the problem with an errant pickoff throw that moved Cabrera to second. It was a situation scripted perfectly for Jeter. With a keener sense of the moment than anyone in baseball, Jeter slapped a 1-1 pitch up the middle for a two-out single, scoring Cabrera and putting the Yankees up 4-1.

That was more than enough for Sabathia, who took a bold first step toward creating his own October lore.

“That’s why we got CC,” Damon said. “To be a workhorse during the season, of course, but to shut down teams in the postseason.”

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