NEW YORK — On the very October day when Derek Jeter had one of the most memorable plays in postseason history, sprinting toward the first-base line at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and creatively flipping a relay throw home to catcher Jorge Posada, CC Sabathia — some 2,500 miles away — made his first career postseason start for the Cleveland Indians.
Sabathia still remembers that game on Oct. 13, 2001, as if it just happened.
“I remember definitely being nervous,” the 38-year-old New York Yankees left-hander recalled this week, laughing.
Perhaps he’ll have fond memories of his next postseason start many years from now, too.
For the 24th time in a postseason, Sabathia will be handed the ball Tuesday. This time it comes as his Yankees try to right their ship following Monday night’s jarring 16-1 loss to the rival Boston Red Sox. Down 2-1 in their American League Division Series, the Yankees are in must-win mode. Lose, and they’re eliminated.
“I know CC about as well as anybody,” fellow Yankees veteran Brett Gardner said. “I have the utmost confidence that he’s going to go out there and give us a chance to win.
“There’s probably no one better I’d rather have out there in a must-win game.”
Gardner isn’t the only one looking forward to having Sabathia on the mound for such a pivotal game. The husky lefty is embracing the opportunity as well.
“Yeah, I get excited for these games, for sure,” Sabathia said. “Just try to stay even-keeled and go out and pitch as best as I can.”
When it comes to elimination games, Sabathia’s best has been OK, but it could be better.
In five career postseason starts with his team facing elimination, Sabathia is 2-2 with a 3.76 ERA. His teams have gone 3-2 in those games.
Although Sabathia might not have always shown overpowering stuff in those contests, he still has had his share of strong playoff performances. Since he joined the Yankees in 2009, he has a 3.29 postseason ERA. In that same time period, his regular-season ERA is 3.74.
After allowing four or more earned runs in three of his first five career postseason starts, Sabathia has allowed that many in just three of his past 18.
He believes that as he works through Boston’s dangerous lineup, he can lean on some of that recent playoff success.
“I can slow the game down,” Sabathia said, referring to how he has controlled his emotions in the latter stages of his career. “It’s all the same now. No game is bigger than the other. So it helps in that way, and I’ve been in those situations a lot.”
The ability to slow those situations down didn’t come naturally nor easily at first. It came after Sabathia learned how to experience a playoff atmosphere.
He can thank a Hall of Fame middle infielder for helping him.
Sabathia was so out of sync with his catcher, Einar Diaz, in the first inning of his postseason debut that the team had to adjust how pitches were called for the rest of the game.
“I was kind of all over the place,” Sabathia recalled.
Indeed, that first inning against one of the most potent offenses in the past 25 years — the 2001 Seattle Mariners — was a challenge.
Ichiro Suzuki began the day by singling off Sabathia, then a 21-year-old rookie. Mike Cameron followed with a quick double. After Sabathia struck out Bret Boone, the brother of his current manager and onetime teammate Aaron Boone, he intentionally walked Edgar Martinez to load the bases.
From there, he walked in a run and looked lost.
“Robbie Alomar came to me in the dugout after the second inning and said, ‘Don’t shake off Einar anymore the rest of the game. I’m calling the pitches from second base,'” Sabathia said. “He was calling pitches from second base, giving them to Einar, and that’s what I was throwing.”
It worked. Cleveland ended up winning 17-2.
“So it was a good night,” Sabathia said.
On the West Coast, the Jeter-led Yankees had a good night as well, as they ended up staving off elimination. Down 0-2 entering the third game of their ALDS, the Bombers rallied to take the series and eventually advanced to the World Series.
Maybe this time it’ll be the grizzled Sabathia, now in pinstripes, who pushes this desperate version of the Yankees toward a series comeback.
“We’ll feel good about giving him the ball,” Aaron Boone said. “We feel like CC physically is in a good place right now coming off a really good start at the end of the year.”
Last time out, Sabathia took a no-hitter into the sixth inning at Tampa Bay before he hit a batter in retaliation, after teammate Austin Romine saw a fastball buzz past his head in the top half of the inning. Sabathia ended up being ejected for the retaliatory move, cutting short a masterful outing.
He had been pitching well enough to possibly finish the game. If given the opportunity to do so Tuesday, Sabathia would take it.
“When I start the game, I start the game to finish the game,” Sabathia said. “Obviously that don’t happen a lot for me anymore, but I mean, I want to pitch as long as I can and as deep as I can into the game.”
The Yankees could use a deep — and memorable — performance. Their season could depend on it.