Redemption song

Tim Brown

CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Indians twice have asked him to open a playoff series, and twice they have played around and through the wreckage.

The ball, again, is C.C. Sabathia's.

He is a win from the World Series, a loss from watching at least one game in Boston, maybe two.

From the chair in front of his locker late Tuesday night, Sabathia turned and revealed a grin that could only emanate from a man his size.

His batting order (and Chien-Ming Wang) had saved him against the New York Yankees. The past three games had saved him against the Boston Red Sox.

He has sat and paced and leaned and applauded in the Indians' dugout ever since, watching an American League championship series become a stage for his teammates, for Rafael Betancourt and Jhonny Peralta and Kenny Lofton and Jake Westbrook.

He watched Paul Byrd find a 91-mph fastball in his right arm. ("You saw that?" Byrd said, grinning. "You don't think they're messing with the gun, do you?") And Trot Nixon find a hit in his old ballpark, and Lofton home-run pop in the ballpark of his prime.

He watched Asdrubal Cabrera become a big leaguer, and Casey Blake start and finish the inning that would bury the Red Sox 7-3 in Game 4 and 20-some guys railing against his own failure.

And now, in the only major-league town he has known, before the same people who've been waiting on this for a decade, at the end of a regular season that could bring him a Cy Young Award, the ball is Sabathia's.

"It means a lot, man," he said. "To be in a position to be able to put us in the World Series, it's unbelievable."

For about a game and a half, it was.

Sabathia, first, was hammered in Game 1. By the time he trudged across the Fenway Park infield, by the time they counted up the damage, he had allowed eight runs in 4 1/3 innings. A night later, Fausto Carmona took the same walk, chased in the fifth inning by the middle of the Red Sox order.

Five days later, the Indians having chased three Red Sox starters themselves, their own pitchers having found the discipline and courage to confront David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell, the series is Sabathia's to end, the party is Sabathia's to start.

In some ways, these still are the Red Sox who dragged down the Yankees from three games back three years ago. There are men in that clubhouse – Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Terry Francona, Curt Schilling – who have seen worse odds.

And the Red Sox start Josh Beckett, who has allowed two runs in 15 innings to the Los Angeles Angels and Indians and hasn't walked a batter. This will not be the declining Schilling, or the fatigued Daisuke Matsuzaka or the capricious Tim Wakefield.

So Sabathia gets his third shot at postseason achievement, only better. He gets the Red Sox and their ace, and he gets a stadium filled with hope, and he gets to forget about the two weeks that preceded it.

He said he began to consider Thursday's start "after we made the last out," when he bounded up the stairs to give Betancourt a pat on the back, to greet the guys who've gotten them – and him – this far.

"I just need to go out and be better than I was the other day," he said.

The pitcher who walked 37 in 241 innings in the regular season has walked 11 in 9 1/3 innings of the postseason. His earned run average – 3.21 from April to September – is 10.61 in October. Playoff batters have hit .314 against him, 55 points higher than in the regular season.

Sabathia admitted to being overly excited against the Yankees, and overly impressed at Fenway Park. Since the middle of ALCS Game 2, it has been his privilege to see fellow pitchers spend their innings in the strike zone – Westbrook in Game 3, Byrd in Game 4, Betancourt nightly.

Betancourt has gone through all or parts of Kevin Youkilis, Ortiz, Ramirez, Lowell and J.D. Drew – two through six in the Red Sox order – in each of the past three games, and those hitters are 0-for-12 against him.

"He's been unbelievable," Sabathia said.

Betancourt said he'd changed nothing. He'd fired strikes, made the Red Sox hit, gotten the rotation back to Sabathia.

"We don't want to go back to Boston," Betancourt said. "We want to finish here."

Now the mound is Sabathia's. The moment is his. The World Series, the Indians' first in a decade, when Sabathia was 17, is that close.

One more pitch from Betancourt, a fastball lined to first baseman Victor Martinez, one more win for the Indians, and all eyes went to Sabathia.

"I'm going to get a good night sleep," he said. "Then I'm going to be aggressive, ready to pitch."

The ball, again, is his.