BOSTON – Sometimes, when the air is cool and the opposing lineup stacked, it is not the velocity of a man's fastball that wins the day, the game or the at-bat, but the depth of his conviction.
C.C. Sabathia, regular-season 19-game winner, Cy Young Award contender, all things spring and summer, took the ball Friday night for the second time this postseason, squarely in his prime.
And for the second time, he pitched not as the ace of an emerging staff, and not as the leader of a roster in its playoff infancy, but as a man unsure of what would leave his hand and seemingly unwilling to live with the consequences of a strike.
It's a tough way to get through October.
"I was trying to go out there and not make mistakes," Sabathia said. "Usually, I go out there to be aggressive and have a good time and enjoy it. I didn't do that."
Not fortunate enough this time to have drawn Chien-Ming Wang as their opposition, it left Sabathia and the Cleveland Indians in an oh-one hole in the American League championship series after the 10-3 shellacking. Josh Beckett was again plenty good enough to win, though he lacked his division series precision and his run of postseason shutouts died at two. It hardly mattered, and he required only 80 pitches for his six innings.
Perhaps the occasion – Game 1, Fenway Park, mid-October – was a bit too large for the young Indians. Perhaps the scouting reports on the Boston Red Sox lineup were written by the man in the second row behind the right-side on-deck circle, Stephen King.
Sabathia in particular, and the Indians' bullpen in general, pitched as though there was a creepy kid lurking behind the mound, plotting to sever their Achilles' with a scythe.
But, Indians' relievers weren't supposed to be in the game in the fifth inning, cleaning up after Sabathia, hoping to maintain a six-run deficit, and ultimately failing.
Pitching eight days after throwing 114 pitches and walking six batters in a five-inning start (and win) against the New York Yankees, Sabathia walked five more batters, let in eight more runs and threw 85 more pitches in 4 1/3 innings.
This is what comes from the hard fastballs and disappearing sliders, from a put-away changeup, from one of the commanding mound presences in the game?
The day before he would oppose Beckett, who probably will win the Cy Young if Sabathia doesn't, Sabathia vowed to challenge the Red Sox hitters. He said he wouldn't be as jumpy as he was against the Yankees, wouldn't come out of his delivery, wouldn't intimidate.
The strategy lasted once through the Boston lineup. He lacked touch on his changeup, so grew wary of throwing too many fastballs, and then the whole thing came apart.
"You can't keep throwing fastball after fastball to Boston Red Sox hitters," Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said.
So, they had pushed Sabathia into a corner, took their walks, and squared his fastball.
"I felt good," Sabathia insisted, "not really overthrowing, none of that. It was just pitch selection, not really sticking with the game plan."
When they came around again in the third inning, Sabathia walked Youkilis on four pitches, hit Ortiz with a 1-and-1 pitch and, given a two-strike count, threw three consecutive too-tight sliders and one hang-on changeup and walked Ramirez to force in a run.
In all, he pitched to nine batters in that third inning, when the Red Sox scored four runs.
And when it was time to pitch to those same hitters once more, Sabathia walked Ortiz to start the fifth inning and then allowed a single to Ramirez.
"They're going to make you come in, they're going to make you work for it," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "They're not going to chase. You've got to prove you can be in the zone before they even think about expanding a little bit."
There were, as it turned out, two plate appearances that separated Sabathia and Beckett, if only symbolically, after so little separated them the previous six months.
Beckett faced Travis Hafner in the fourth inning, three innings after Hafner had popped a fastball over the bullpens in right field for a home run, the first run Beckett had allowed in 19 postseason innings.
The second at-bat went 10 pitches, seven of them strikes, five of them fouled. Curveballs followed fastballs, then more fastballs, and finally a changeup for a strike that Hafner swung through.
Sabathia threw two hard, exacting fastballs to start the Ramirez plate appearance in the third inning, the bases loaded, the score tied. The first, down and in, Ramirez swung over. The second, down and away, Ramirez fouled. He was, at last, taking it to a hitter. Alas, at 0-and-2, Sabathia's first slider bounced in front of the plate, and then the sliders kept coming, and finally a changeup, none reasonably near the strike zone.
"Just not being myself," Sabathia said. "I was getting to 0-2 and then trying to pitch around guys, which I normally don't do."
In all, Ramirez and Ortiz came to bat 10 times. They reached base 10 times, on five walks (Ramirez twice with the bases loaded), a hit batter, three singles and a double.
Ortiz has reached base 16 times in 18 playoff plate appearances. Ramirez has reached in 13 of 18 plate appearances.
Here's the thing: They're going to come up a bunch more often in the next week or so, starting again tonight against Fausto Carmona. They've already done this to John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar and Jered Weaver, and they did it to Sabathia. Maybe they're going to stay at it for a couple more weeks.
Willis, though, seemed reasonably sure there is a way to get them out, that there is a pitcher who can get them out, after Sabathia couldn't. Or wouldn't.
"I don't think our approach will change," he said, "because we didn't execute our approach tonight."