BOSTON — Cy Young candidate C.C. Sabathia vs. Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett.
As far as postseason pitching matchups are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than this.
That’s the pair that will be on the mound when the American League Championship Series begins tonight at Boston’s fabled Fenway Park, pitting baseball’s top two teams against each other in a battle for league supremacy and a trip to the World Series.
“Their guy is one of the best in the game. We feel like our guy is one of the best in the game,” said Boston manager Terry Francona, a former front office assistant in Cleveland during the 2001 season. “I think when you get to this time of season, it’s pretty awesome.”
That’s an appropriate description of what is expected to take place tonight between Sabathia and Beckett, considered the favorites to win the league’s top pitching honor. Both produced spectacular regular seasons, with Beckett as the majors’ only 20-game winner and Sabathia winning 19 games, while ranking among the leaders in practically every category.
But though the two figure to play a significant part in the outcome, it will be their teammates that will decide the series.
“Our hitters got to worry about C.C. Sabathia, not me,” Beckett said. “I’ve just got to get their guys out.”
The 27-year-old right-hander did a pretty good job of that in splitting his two regular-season starts against Cleveland, while allowing just three earned runs and five hits over 15 innings. He lost the second start 1-0 on a solo home run from Franklin Gutierrez, who sparked one of just two Indians’ wins in seven meetings between the two clubs.
But this is a different Cleveland team, one that was swept in six regular-season games against the Yankees, yet beat New York with relative ease in the division series.
“You start over,” said Indians manager Eric Wedge, who has received late-season contributions from players that weren’t even on the roster when Boston and Cleveland last met, July 26. “There are so many points in time during the course of a season where a ballclub evolves or changes or gets better. But, ultimately, once you get down to the end, that’s the team you are.”
“It’s probably going to depend on how we play and how they play,” Francona said. “They’re healthy. Some of their younger players have some games under their belt. They’ve gone through some big series. I know they feel good about themselves.”
Beckett isn’t putting much stock in anything that took place through September.
“They’ve got a lot of guys there swinging the bats a little bit differently than they were then,” he said. “They’ve got a couple new guys, so you’ve just got to go at it as a new game.
“It’s October. Everybody is locked in this time of year. Ain’t nobody out there just flailing away. People don’t slip through the cracks in October.”
Like Beckett, Sabathia also dropped a 1-0 decision to his ALCS opponent (his only start of the year against the Red Sox), losing to Daisuke Matsuzaka, despite allowing just a run on five hits through seven innings.
And like his team, Sabathia became a different pitcher this season, finally morphing into a true ace for the entire year, instead of the flashes he showed earlier in his career.
“He’s able to pound the strike zone with all three of his pitches basically, and both tilts of his fastball, too,” said Boston catcher Jason Varitek. “I wouldn’t say his stuff changed, just his experience has changed.”
Beckett and Sabathia traveled different roads in their first postseason starts, with Boston’s ace dominating the Angels in a shutout win, while Sabathia also won, but struggled with control.
Aided by a tight strike zone from Bruce Froemming, Sabathia walked a season-high six batters and lasted just five innings in a 12-3 Game 1 victory over the Yankees.
“I think it was just a case of me overthrowing,” Sabathia said. “Usually I’ve got my pretty good control when I’m 91 (mph) to 94, in that range, and I can hump up and get 96, 97. From pitch one the other night I was 96, 97 the whole time.
“I’m going to work hard (tonight) to keep under control and be able to hit my spots. I need to be good. I need to control myself and control my emotions.”
That’s good advice for Sabathia’s teammates, most of whom are experiencing their first taste of postseason baseball. But they will bring some seasoning into their ALCS confrontation with Boston after playing one of the most successful franchises in baseball, and in one of the toughest venues (Yankee Stadium), in the opening round.
“Hopefully we’ll be a little more relaxed,” said Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore. “The first series is probably the toughest for some guys who haven’t been there, but I know for me what it was like. I think I’m definitely more relaxed going into this series.”
It’s a series that the Indians will again enter as the underdog, but only in name, according to Sabathia.
“They’ve got great pitching and we do, too,” he said. “They’ve got huge bats and we do, too. Look at the numbers. You look at the pitching, you look at the offenses, and I think we’re dead even.
“It’s just going to take who wants it more, who executes little things and gets runners over and gets them in, and I think that’ll determine the series.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: Cleveland vs. Boston
WHAT: Game 1, ALCS (best-of-seven series)
WHERE: Fenway Park, Boston
PITCHERS: Sabathia (19-7, 3.21 ERA) vs. Beckett (20-7, 3.27)
TV/RADIO: Channel 8; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WKNR 850-AM