Verlander vs. Sabathia shaping up as horse race

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – Justin Verlander(notes) and CC Sabathia(notes) pitch Friday night in the Bronx, a reasonable way for baseball to continue its thunderbolt of a season climax.

Hell, Jim Leyland was still talking about the wild-card finishes a day later, though he might have been less impressed by the games than he was the miracle machine on which he was viewing those games.

Lloyd McClendon, his batting coach, held this little wonder of 21st century technology, and together Wednesday night they gasped and groaned and thrilled to the baseball unfolding in St. Petersburg and Baltimore.

Leyland attempted several times to describe this Satan’s machinery Thursday afternoon, and settled variously on, “one of those fancy things you can watch” and “that device” before giving up and repeatedly making hand gestures that suggested the doo-hickey was about the size of a box of Wheaties.

“A playman,” he finally decided.

“iPad,” the moderator corrected.

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“Like this,” Leyland said, repeating the now accepted sign language for iPad. Or Wheaties box.

Everyone nodded.

“I could see it,” Leyland said, meaning the games. “Then it went out because, oh, the satellite or something. I don’t know. It came back on. You could hear it, and then you could see it again. It was great.”

In the rear of the news conference, Joe Torre, who’d been sitting there enjoying his old pal Jim, burst into laughter, because at that moment if you’d brought into the room an electric pencil sharpener, Leyland might have thrown a chair at it.

The point is, and I’m getting there, is that the new stuff isn’t for everyone, even if it’s handy on the rare occasion you’re sitting on a tarmac in Detroit waiting to learn if your first playoff game is in New York or not.

Take this era’s starting pitchers, a generally coddled bunch who are asked to take the ball every fifth day or so and to pitch six innings or so, and even then they sneak looks at the bullpen when their pitch counts climb toward triple digits.

It’s not their fault. Their training prepares them to pitch a baseball game, of course, but further to pitch another one in five days, and another five days after that. They are built for caution. Organizations don’t prepare young pitchers as much as they preserve them, which is why rotations are at five and a manager’s best friend is his pitch counter and maybe, probably, why a matchup like Verlander vs. Sabathia feels more special than most.

While they do pitch to the system, and they do post big numbers in wins and ERA and strikeouts, they also bend the boundaries of a system that submits to the frail. Sabathia has made his reputation pitching on three days’ rest. Verlander hasn’t yet had the pleasure, and likely won’t in this series either, but he makes the most of the starts he’s given.

The sure-thing Cy Young Award winner in the American League, Verlander led the league in plenty, and not least among them was innings pitched (251) and pitches thrown. Sabathia has pitched at least 230 innings in five consecutive seasons. That’s something anymore.

Verlander averaged 116 pitches per start, seven times pitched past 120 and once past 130. Sabathia topped 120 three times.

That such workloads are considered newsworthy speak to the era. The seventh inning? Teams have other guys for that. A pitch count in the 120s? Managers get savaged for that. Blown elbows? Owners pay for that.

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John Smoltz(notes), in town to call the game for TBS, was asked why – given the climate of protecting pitchers first and turning them into horses next – guys such Verlander and Sabathia become horses anyway. What makes them different?

Smoltz huffed. He turned the question in his head as Leyland would an iPad.

“First and foremost,” he said, “the theories that are coming out of nowhere and changing baseball is not good. They think they’re saving arms and therefore money.”

What the new baseball folks – and they’re not even that new anymore – are missing, he said, is that consistent and pristine mechanics produce horses. Greater expectations produce horses. A drive to reach the eighth or even the ninth inning, that produces horses.

The rest, he said, “That’s a bunch of made-up, new-age, I mean, what are they basing it on? I tell you right now, if I was starting a team, I’d have a four-man rotation. And that’s why I love Verlander, watching him pitch. That’s why I love CC, guys who go deep into games.”

“Look,” he added, “it’s not hard to pitch five or six innings.”

It’s probably why everybody does it. The courage is in the next two or three innings, Smoltz said, in risking yourself and the game three and four times through the opposing lineup.

“I just know they’re beasts when they take the ball,” said Tigers reliever Phil Coke(notes), who has pitched alongside both. “They’re beasts and they don’t want to give up the ball. If there’s a common thread, I’m gonna assume that has to be the one.”

And they don’t tire. They don’t allow it.

Not even in October, not after nearly 4,000 pitches, and not when the last third of the game still needs a pitcher. So, while it’ll be interesting to note Verlander’s 24 wins and Sabathia’s 19 at the start of Friday night’s game, what will make the matchup – and what will set the tone for the series – is who will be there at the end of it.

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