Besides the fact that he's pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues and has nearly 200 wins to show for the effort, CC Sabathia has built his reputation as an ace by being durable.
Sabathia has averaged nearly 35 starts per season during his MLB career. But during the postseason, his left arm has seemed bionic when asked to start a game on three days' rest rather than the customary four that a starting pitcher receives between appearances.
Short rest was no problem for Sabathia during the 2008 season with the Milwaukee Brewers, when he made each of his final three starts of the regular season on three days' rest. The left-hander won two of those three games, allowing two earned runs in 21.2 innings.
After joining the New York Yankees, manager Joe Girardi leaned on Sabathia's ability to pitch effectively on short rest in the playoffs, preventing him from having to use a back-end starter.
During the 2009 ALCS, Girardi planned to go with a three-man rotation, knowing that Sabathia could pitch on short rest (and fearing that he would have to use Joba Chamberlain or Chad Gaudin as a fourth starter). The left-hander came back on three days' rest for Game 4 of the series, pitching eight innings and allowing one run.
Girardi went with the same strategy in the World Series, again going to Sabathia in Game 4. Though he didn't earn the victory, the Yankees won the game and took a 3-1 series lead as Sabathia pitched 6.2 innings and gave up three runs.
Surprisingly, Girardi didn't use Sabathia on short rest during the 2010 ALCS vs. the Texas Rangers when the Rangers took a 2-1 series lead. A.J. Burnett got the nod and was pounded for five runs over six innings in an eventual 10-3 loss for the Yankees. The Yanks went on to lose the series in six games.
If the intention was to use Sabathia in a shortened rotation for the 2011 postseason, rain postponing Game 1 of the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers nixed those plans. Sabathia only pitched two innings before rain forced the game to be called. The Yankees started him in Game 3 since he threw so few pitches in the rain-postponed opener.
Though the scheduling of the series didn't allow Girardi to start Sabathia again, the hefty lefty came back two days later—on what would have been his scheduled between-starts throwing session—to pitch 1.1 innings of relief. However, Sabathia did allow the Tigers to score a third run, giving Detroit the margin of victory in a 3-2 win and series clincher.
So how will the Yankees manager utilize his ace starter during the 2012 postseason?
Sabathia made 28 starts this season, the fewest games he's appeared in since 2006. He went on the disabled list twice this year due to groin and elbow injuries. However, Sabathia finished the season strong, pitching eight innings in each of his final three starts (all on four days' rest). He allowed four earned runs over 24 innings.
In Game 1 of this year's ALDS vs. the Baltimore Orioles, Sabathia looked ready to be the Yankees ace through the playoffs again. He was one out from a complete game, pitching 8.2 innings and allowing two runs before David Robertson took over to get the final out.
Sabathia threw 120 pitches in the Game 1 victory, which might hurt his ability to bounce back on short rest later in the series, if needed. Girardi could bring him back on three days' rest for Game 4, especially if he's concerned about the series going to a decisive Game 5. Of course, the series might not get to that point if the Yankees beat the Orioles in their next two games.
Pitching on short rest has sort of become the expectation for ace starting pitchers.
Cliff Lee took criticism during the 2010 postseason for not asking to pitch on short rest. As Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan reported at the time, Lee said he would do it, but never went to Rangers manager Ron Washington to make the request. The unspoken assumption was that Lee didn't really want to break his routine, and the Rangers decided it wasn't worth asking him to.
No such reports or whispers have ever been written or voiced about Sabathia. Perhaps Sabathia will go to Girardi and ask to pitch on short rest. Maybe Girardi knows he can do it because it hasn't been an issue before.
But maybe—just maybe—there will be a bit of doubt this year, as Sabathia broke down during the season. The guess here is that he'll get the call if needed and he'll answer it. Why think otherwise? Sabathia has always done what his team needed.
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