The atmosphere in the Bronx was tense, to say the least, with the Yankee offense mired in a cavernous slump and with top relievers Rafael Soriano and David Robertson having been worked hard in the extra-inning marathons that were Game 3 and 4. It was clear that the team would need not only dominance from their 32-year-old No. 1 starter, but also distance.
Sabathia delivered on both counts, one-upping his authoritative Game 1 performance (8.2 innings, two earned runs, eight hits, seven strikeouts) with a complete game, four-hit, one-run, nine-strikeout masterpiece.
The only real trouble the hefty lefty ran into came in the eighth, when the Orioles scored a run on a ground single by Lew Ford. They then loaded the bases, putting the tying runs on second and third with one out.
As Sabathia eclipsed the 100-pitch mark, manager Joe Girardi stuck with his starter. Sabathia rewarded his decision by striking out Nate McLouth and forcing J.J. Hardy to hit a soft grounder to Derek Jeter, who threw him out at first to end the inning, prompting Yankee radio announcer John Sterling to call Sabathia “an ace in every single possible way.”
Sabathia's gem was the first postseason complete game by a Yankee since Roger Clemens' one-hitter in Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS and the first in a winner-take-all game since Ralph Terry in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series.
Sabathia took command of the 2012 ALDS and steered the Yankees to victory, going 17.2 innings and allowing just three runs in two of the team’s three victories. The performance brought back memories of the 2009 ALCS, when he grabbed MVP honors with two wins and 16 innings of two-run ball. As Sabathia told the New York Daily News after Friday's win:
That’s what I’m here for. It’s what I play the game for. I guess I should feel a little pressure, or something like that, but I don’t.
Sabathia has backed up that claim with a body of impressive postseason work. Though he struggled in the playoffs early in his career with the Indians and Brewers, Sabathia has mostly overcome that as a Yankee. In four Octobers and now seven postseason series with the club, he has compiled a 3.09 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP and an 8.69 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio.
Like many of his teammates, Sabathia is well-compensated financially. He’s earned around $87 million through his first four seasons as a Yankee, and he’s still owed at least $99 million through 2016. But unlike many of his teammates, Sabathia has been worth just about every penny. In the 2008-09 offseason, the Yankees identified a need for a front-line starter—and that’s exactly what they found.
Since then, Sabathia has thrown an impressive 905 regular-season innings. He has a record of 74-29 to go with a 3.22 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. Despite having pitched just four years in the Bronx, Sabathia has cracked the top 20 on the team’s all-time list in bWAR (16th, 20.9) and the top 30 in wins (29th).
His .718 winning percentage is second in the club’s history. He’s finished in the top five in AL Cy Young voting in each of his Yankee seasons so far. While his two DL stints in 2012 will likely end that streak, Sabathia should still find himself in the top 10.
For the Yankees, who struggled with iffy starting pitching that led to first-round playoff exits for most of the mid-2000s, Sabathia has been, in many ways, the biggest difference between winning and losing. They’re now 5-2 in playoff series with the big man around, a sharp contrast to their 0-3 mark in the four years before his arrival.
A crafty veteran with still-dominant stuff, Sabathia embodies what it means to be a major league ace.