NEW YORK -- Two winters ago, the Yankees went after CC Sabathia, made an offer to him the minute he became a free agent, to show him just how much they wanted him to come to the Bronx and be their ace. To pitch the big games, the games that matter most. Games like today.
After another collapse, another meltdown against the Rangers on Tuesday night, the Yankees come to the Stadium this afternoon with their season in the balance. Last fall, Sabathia helped pitch the Yankees to a World Series; today, he pitches to keep them alive.
"The best part about it is that not only do we want him to be on the mound," A.J. Burnett said, "but he wants to be on the mound. He wants the ball in that situation."
Burnett, who started on Tuesday, tried to keep the Yankees off the verge, tried to get this series even. In Game 4, pitching for the first time this postseason, Burnett was good -- very good, even -- through five innings, taking a one-run lead into the sixth.
Then, with two outs and a man on second, Joe Girardi consulted his binder of answers and decided that Burnett should intentionally walk David Murphy so he could pitch to Bengie Molina instead.
Asked afterward, Burnett said he wasn't expecting that decision but had no issue with it. Girardi defended putting the go-ahead run on base by saying he was playing the match-ups (Murphy had had success against Burnett, Molina hadn't) and the truth is that all Burnett had to do was retire the Rangers No. 8 hitter to end the inning.
He couldn't. For most of the night, the fastballs he missed with would stay off the plate, but this one -- just this one -- leaked toward the middle and Molina crushed it. Four years to the day after his brother, Yadier, sank the Mets with a dramatic home run for the Cardinals in the NLCS, Bengie put a three-run home run into the left-field seats and the Yankees went from even in the series to almost out.
"My only regret is that the ball didn't go where I wanted on that one pitch," Burnett said. "One pitch, man. One pitch."
That is all it took. The Rangers would go on to blow the game open, ripping into the Yankees' relievers and sending the Stadium fans for the exits as they stretched the final margin to 10-3. In truth, two runs was plenty; the Yankees have stranded runners constantly over the past four games and, since their five-run rally in the eighth inning of Game 1, they are 3-for-33 with runners in scoring position.
"Seems like it's the same story," Derek Jeter said. "So far, they've been a lot better than us."
That includes Sabathia. In Game 1, working on seven days rest, Sabathia lasted just four innings, leaving in line for a loss until the Rangers' bullpen folded late. Sabathia wouldn't blame the extra rest, wouldn't offer an excuse, but he also pitched poorly in the division series opener, another game in which he had more than the typical four days between starts.
Today he'll be on his regular schedule and, after watching the Rangers' ace, Cliff Lee, dominate in Game 3, Sabathia knows what the Yankees are expecting from him.
"I feel like I need to go out and pitch like that every time out," Sabathia said. "I think you guys know that. I wasn't able to get it done in Game 1, but I'll be ready to go [today]."
He better. If he isn't, if he puts up another game like last week in Texas, than the quest for 28 ends today. Suddenly the Yankees become about contracts, about whether Derek Jeter will be back, or Andy Pettitte, or Girardi.
The Yankees don't want that, aren't ready for that. Not yet, at least. Not now.
"It's cut and dried -- we've got to win three in a row," Lance Berkman said. "And it starts with one."
With the No. 1, really, with Sabathia taking the ball in the kind of game the Yankees brought him here to pitch.
"He's been there for us the last two years," Girardi said, "and I expect CC to be tough [today]."
Everyone does. They have no choice. If he isn't, the Yankees will be going home.