Indians ace gets mechanical, mental tuneup

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The text message arrived Tuesday morning. C.C. Sabathia glanced at his phone and saw it was from Roy Oswalt.

"Just throw how you throw," it read.

Since his last start, when he gave up nine earned runs for the second consecutive game, Sabathia had received words of encouragement from around the country, ranging from his former teammate Eduardo Perez to his mother. Oswalt's, as much as anyone's, stuck with him. He, too, had struggled in his first three starts for the Houston Astros, only to catch form. Now it was Sabathia's turn, the weather turning, the arm loosening and a flaccid Kansas City lineup awaiting his Cleveland Indians.

For six innings, Sabathia looked every bit his Cy Young self, shutting out the Royals and striking out 11 in a 15-1 thrashing at Kauffman Stadium. He yielded four singles, a couple loopers and a bleeder among them, his dominance a product of a 94-mph fastball mixed with an 82-mph slider, both of which he located up and down, in and out, the strike zone his canvas.

"Maybe I should've been more worried than I was," Sabathia said. "But I really wasn't. I just knew it was all upstairs, all in my head."

What rattled around there for the season's first three weeks wasn't pretty. Sabathia endured a miserable postseason that saw him falter in the American League Championship Series, spent spring training quelling fears about his durability and then over his first four starts looked every bit the 97-pound weakling instead of the 6-foot-7, 290-pound leviathan he is.

The questions unnerved him. What's wrong? Why is this happening? How can I fix it? Was it bad mechanics? Tipping his pitches? An injury?

"To be honest with you, the way I was pitching, I was wishing something was wrong," Sabathia said. "I'm giving up nine runs two starts in a row, I'm actually hoping something would hurt, my arm would be hurting. But it's not the case."

To fix himself, Sabathia needed to deconstruct the problem. He consulted Indians catcher Victor Martinez and bullpen coach Luis Isaac and, most of all, pitching coach Carl Willis. Three years ago, Sabathia fought through a similar rough patch and ended the season on a good note, and from that Willis learned that nurturing Sabathia back to normalcy takes time.

"You have to be reassuring," Willis said. "For myself and him, that was comforting, knowing he'd overcome something like that."

First, the two looked at videos and photographs to find flaws in Sabathia's delivery. They noticed a few things. Sabathia was lurching over the mound more than in years past, so he made a concerted effort Tuesday, he said, to "stand tall." His right leg, the one on which he lands, had also shifted a couple inches to the right, causing his torso to open up and the ball to leave his hand too soon.

The results were gory: In his first four starts, Sabathia walked 14 batters. Over 34 starts last season, he walked 37. When the ball stayed in the strike zone, it bisected the plate instead of staying on the corners, and batters blistered 32 hits.

Sabathia, 27 years old and an impending free agent, was losing millions of dollars. It was the worst audition since William Hung.

On Tuesday, his redemption began. Sabathia stood tall, and Kansas City hitters struggled to find his pitches. Of the 68 strikes Sabathia threw, the Royals swung and missed on 16. Jose Guillen almost fell down striking out. Mark Teahen swung at a pitch 2 feet outside the strike zone. Sabathia's land leg stayed inside, and it made his slider bite like an Australian sand fly.

His work with Martinez paid off, too, as Sabathia's mix of pitches evolved. In the first inning, he worked almost entirely off his fastball. Four innings later, he introduced a slow curveball to keep the Royals off balance. And in the sixth inning, he threw five changeups – as many as he'd thrown in the five previous innings.

"No one was really worried about him," Indians first baseman Ryan Garko said. "We know what kind of guy he is, what kind of player he is. This was too small of a sample to read too much into. When you win the Cy Young, you've got a big target on your back. He'll be fine."

Sabathia certainly acted like it. Before the game, he sunk into a leather couch, plopped his arms along the back and watched the movie "Along Came Polly." He laughed at the sight gags and the lame jokes along with all his teammates, a 13.50 ERA the slightest of his worries.

He had his advice and his pointers and his text message, the 5-foot-10 right-hander from Mississippi telling the big, bad left-hander from the Bay Area that he just needed to throw how he throws. And he did.