Two aces coming at you from left, right
With Sabathia, Carmona, Tribe has lethal duo for postseason
CLEVELAND -- The 1995 Indians seemingly had it all.They won 100 games in a strike-shortened 144-game season. They had the might of Albert Belle's 50-double, 50-homer campaign. They had the Majors' best closer in Jose Mesa, who converted 46 out of 48 saves. And though history has had a way of labeling that '95 club as all-hit and no-pitch, they boasted the best ERA in the league, with a rotation anchored by wily veterans Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser. What that team didn't have, however, was a tried-and-true, no-bones-about-it, bona-fide No. 1 starter -- the kind of hurler whose mere presence on the mound seems to usher in vows of victory. Want to know the scary thing about the 2007 version of the Tribe? It has two of those guys, in the form of dual aces C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. "I think [in '95], we had some guys who are good," said Indians outfielder Kenny Lofton, a member of both clubs, "but not as good as those two. If we would have had those two guys at the top of our rotation, we would have won two or three World Series." Those Indians teams of the 1990s had full-time membership in October baseball, but a big part of their inability to capture a crown was their frustration in the first games of series. They lost eight straight playoff series-opening games between 1995-98, including two World Series, three American League Championship Series rounds and three Division Series. As these 2007 Indians gear up for a first-round meeting with the Yankees and what they hope will be the franchise's first run to the World Series title since '48, they do so with the decidedly rare luxury of having two AL Cy Young candidates on their roster. That could play huge dividends in their search to set a tone early. "It's a great situation for us to be in," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "These guys have been our leaders all year." Not since Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Herb Score all notched 20 victories in 1956 has an Indians' rotation had this much potency up top. At 27 years of age, Sabathia put together what can easily be characterized as his best season. He set career highs in wins (19), starts (34), innings (241), strikeouts (209) and career bests in ERA (3.21) and walks (37). And considering his size and handedness, his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.65 was downright incredible.
"This year has been a lot of fun," Sabathia said. "But I still have work to do." Carmona drastically turned around after a whirlwind 2006 in which he was initially a depth starter, before flourishing in the setup role and floundering at closer. After going 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA last season, he has gone 19-8 with a 3.06 mark -- at the ripe old age of 23, no less. "I feel great about what happened this season," Carmona said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I learned a lot from what happened last season. That was a learning experience. I took every opportunity the team gave me and tried to do the best with every opportunity. It's worked, so far."
The only question, as the postseason looms, is whether the Indians' offense can sufficiently back up its pair of aces. Sabathia and Carmona fell tantalizingly close to reaching the 20-win plateau, but they were done in by a second-half stretch in which the Tribe bats went cruelly cold. In a seven-start stretch from July 24-Aug. 24, Sabathia allowed a grand total of 12 earned runs, never giving up more than two earned runs at a time. But the Indians scored just 16 runs total in those games. Carmona had a similar string of tough luck. In seven starts between July 31-Aug. 31, the righty put together an ERA of 3.31, but he went 1-4.
American League Division Series schedule
|Wed., Oct. 3||6:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||3 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||9:30 p.m.||Angel Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||8:30 p.m.||Fenway Park||TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||6:30 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Fri., Oct. 5||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|Sun. Oct. 7||6:30 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Mon. Oct. 8||6 p.m.||Yankee Stadium||TBS|
|*Wed. Oct. 10||5 p.m.||Jacobs Field||TBS|
|* If necessary. All times ET.|
"We've had games where they've gone the complete game and only given up one or two runs and gotten a loss," third baseman Casey Blake said. "They both should have had 20-win seasons." The bats have since come back to life, and the Indians have seven players with 10 or more home runs and five who've hit 20 -- an attribute that could loom large in October. But playoff series -- particularly short series like the ALDS -- come down to starting pitching, and the Indians are obviously comfortable in that department. "We just need to keep it going," Sabathia said. "It's a whole different season, so we need to step up. We've been keeping us in games all year. I think everybody -- all the starters -- we feed off each other. If one guy has a great game, the next wants to throw a shutout. It's definitely good competition." Friendly competition aside, Sabathia and Carmona have benefited from each other's presence. It has sheltered both starters from the burden of having to be the lone stopper. They have different repertoires, and they throw with opposite arms. But stylistically, they've both rather recently learned the value of straying from their go-to pitch. Sabathia came into the big leagues as an upper-90s flame-thrower. Over the past two seasons, the lefty's learned to attack early in the count with a deceptive slider, and he's mixed in a cut fastball that is devastating to right-handed batters. Carmona made a name for himself with a mid-90s sinker that, at its best, is downright unhittable. But as this season has progressed, he's also learned to keep hitters off-balance with his slider and changeup. All that remains to be seen is how those pitching styles will play out in the postseason. Sabathia's getting his first look at the Yankees in more than three years. He is 1-7 with a 7.13 ERA lifetime against New York, but he last faced them on Sept. 1, 2004, when they were a different team and he was a different guy. Carmona held the Yankees' potent lineup to a respectable six runs on 14 hits over 13 innings in two starts this season, but went 0-1, nonetheless. Facing a Yankees team that beat them six times in six meetings this season is a daunting task for the Indians. But with their two big guns in the mix, they feel anything can happen. "It gives you a lot of confidence to have two people on the hill who are that dominant," fellow starter Paul Byrd said. "They've shown they can beat anybody and everybody. It's nice to have two big horses to lean on."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.