CLEVELAND-Ryan Garko had never played in a playoff game in the major leagues prior to Thursday night. Nevertheless, the Indians first baseman knew one basic tenet about postseason play: “I know that what happens in the regular season has no bearing on what happens now,” Garko said. “All the records go out the window.”
Yet, Garko and his teammates could not escape one statistic from the regular season as they prepared to face the Yankees in the American League Division Series-the Indians were 0-6 against the Yankees in the regular season. “We tried not to think about it, but you also can’t ignore it because they do keep stats on those sorts of things,” Garko said with a smile. “While you try not to think it, you also don’t want to let a streak like that grow, because the last thing you want to be doing at this time of year is talking about something like that.”
The Indians won’t have to talk about it anymore after rolling to a 12-3 win over the Yankees in Game One of their ALDS matchup on Thursday night at Jacobs Field. Game Two is set for 5:07 p.m. EDT Friday. The Indians scored just 17 runs in six regular-season games against the Yankees, including more than three just once. Yet, the Indians erupted for four home runs among 14 hits in rolling to victory in their first postseason game in six years.
Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang was tagged for eight runs and nine hits in 4 2/3 innings while walking four, hitting a batter and striking out two. He gave up two of the four home runs, as rookie second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera connected in the third inning, and Victor Martinez went deep in the fifth. The Indians’ other two homers came off rookie relievers as Travis Hafner took Ross Ohlendorf deep in the sixth inning and Garko connected off of Phil Hughes in the eighth. The eight runs allowed by Wang matched the most he allowed in any of his 30 regular-season starts; Toronto scored eight off him in 2 2/3 innings back on August 8th in a 15-4 rout at SkyDome.
“He’s a great pitcher and some of the sinkers he threw me were as nasty as any pitchers I’ve seen all year,” Garko said. “I think what helped us in this first game is that we play in the American League Central. We saw number-one starters all year in (Detroit’s Justin) Verlander, (Minnesota’s Johan) Santana, and (Chicago’s) Mark Buehrle. We’re not intimidated by facing good pitchers. We really raise our game a level against them.” The aforementioned trio made 14 starts against the Indians this year, and went a combined 2-9 with a 5.82 ERA.
Wang, a sinkerballer, was second in the AL with a 2.68 groundball/flyball ratio in the regular season, trailing only the Indians’ Fausto Carmona, who had a 3.28 mark and will start Game Two today against Andy Pettitte. Wang and Carmona also tied for the major league lead in double plays induced with 32 and Wang was second in the AL in double plays induced per double-play situation at .227, trailing only Kansas City rookie Billy Buckner (.300).
While Wang induced Cabrera to ground into a double play in the first inning, he wound up getting more outs in the air (five) than on the ground (four), a good indication that he wasn’t on yesterday. “He was having trouble keeping the ball down all night,” Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said of Wang. “All of his pitchers were up and he’s not nearly as effective when he has to pitch that way. The great thing about Wang is he’s always one pitch away from getting a big double play. Except for the first inning, he couldn’t get that double play ball when he needed it tonight.”
It was suggested to the soft-spoken Wang that he may have been hurt by home plate umpire Bruce Froemming’s seemingly tight strike zone. However, he refused to make an excuse. “I just did not pitch well,” the Taiwan native noted.
While gutsy and gritty are two words often overused in October, they both are fitting in describing winning pitcher C.C. Sabathia‘s outing, as he survived five shaky innings. The big left-hander walked six and threw 114 pitches, yet allowed only three runs as he limited the highest-scoring offense in baseball to four hits while striking out five. Sabathia’s six walks matched a career high, done just twice before in 219 regular-season starts. Sabathia overcame some immediate adversity when Yankees left fielder Johnny Damon led off the game with by roping a pitch down the right field line for a home run. Right field umpire Jim Wolf did his best to render the idea of a six-man umpiring crew for the postseason useless by originally calling Damon’s shot a foul ball, but the umps then huddled and reversed the call.
“C.C. didn’t have his best stuff, that was pretty obvious right from the start,” said Martinez, the Indians’ catcher. “He had to battle all night. He kept battling and battling and battling.” “C.C. showed tonight why he’s one of the greatest pitchers in the game,” Garko said. “It’s easy to go out there with your best stuff like he has most nights and just blow people away. He couldn’t do that but he still found a way to win.”
Sabathia saved his best for last, though, when the Yankees closed to 4-3 in the fifth inning and Indians manager Eric Wedge ordered an intentional walk to Alex Rodriguez to load the bases with one out. Sabathia then fell behind in the count to Posada 3-0 before rallying to get a strikeout on a fastball high and away on pitch No. 111, then ending the inning by getting Hideki Matsui to pop out. “C.C. getting out of the fifth was the ballgame,” Garko said. “It gave us a huge lift. If he can’t get out of that inning, we have to go to our bullpen earlier than we want and who knows what happens.”
To Wedge, Sabathia showed in that moment why he is worth every bit of value reflected in the 65.2 VORP he posted this year to lead all AL pitchers and finish third in the major leagues behind San Diego’s Jake Peavy (77.0) and Arizona’s Brandon Webb (66.1). “If you look at that first inning and you look at that fifth inning, C.C. did a great job of not letting things domino on him,” Wedge said. “When thing are getting a little bit crazy, that’s when you need to be the coolest cat in the house, so to speak. When you have that type of ability and you’ve had the year and career he’s had, there’s every reason in the world for him to be that confident and to show that poise. That’s what you saw.”
Sabathia is one of the few Indians who has been on the postseason stage as he beat the 116-win Seattle Mariners in the 2001 ALDS as a 21-year-old rookie. Though it was six years ago, Sabathia was able to draw on that experience to stay calm at a juncture of the game where it seemed the Yankees were ready to take control. “I was jut thinking to myself, just make sure we end the inning with the lead and I was able to work out of it,” Sabathia said.
That left the Yankees frustrated. “We had the perfect game plan,” said Rodriguez, who went 0-for-2 with two walks. “We wanted to work the count, make him throw a lot of pitches and we got his pitch count up there. He was over 100 in the fifth inning. We executed the plan but we just couldn’t land the knockout punch.”
Instead, the Indians’ lineup is the one that registered a TKO in the bottom of the fifth, scoring five runs while chasing Wang and pushing their lead to 8-4. Martinez sparked the rally with a two-run home run that landed a knockout punch of it own as it caused Cleveland Cavaliers superstar and unabashed Yankees fan LeBron James-who was rooting against the Indians despite growing up just down Interstate 77 in Akron-to get up from his seat behind home plate and leave the ballpark.
Then Kenny Lofton, the 40-year-old left fielder playing in his 11th postseason but still seeking his first World Series, hit an RBI single, one of his three hits and four RBIs, to force Wang’s exit. Casey Blake capped the inning’s damage with a two-run double off Ohlendorf.
Handed a lead, the Indians’ relief corps was almost perfect over the final four innings, retiring 11 straight batters before pinch-hitter Jason Giambi singled with two outs in the ninth off of set-up man Rafael Betancourt, who was surprisingly brought into the game with a nine-run lead despite being the Indians’ most effective relief pitcher this season with a 6.845 WRXL that ranked second in the major leagues to the 7.419 of Seattle closer J.J. Putz. Rookie left-hander Rafael Perez initially relieved Sabathia, and retired all six batters he faced; he was followed by rookie right-hander Jensen Lewis‘ perfect eighth before Betancourt worked a scoreless ninth.
“It was really important for a lot of us younger guys to get our feet wet and see action in a playoff game right away,” said the 23-year-old Lewis, who began the season at Double-A Akron. “The Yankees are here every year, but this is a new experience for most of the guys in our clubhouse. It’s easy to be a little intimidated by it, especially since it’s the Yankees we’re playing. That’s why I think it’s huge that we won the first game. If nothing else, we know now we’re capable of winning a game against them.”