NEW YORK — As the pitching prize of last offseason, CC Sabathia had options. Sure, the Yankees threw a mountain of money at him. It was names like Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera that sealed the deal, though.
"That's why I signed," Sabathia said of the core group from New York's run of four World Series titles from 1996-2000. "These guys had the experience in these tough games and tough situations and they shined through this postseason."
No time for modesty CC – you shined brightest of all.
The imposing ace was picked as the MVP of the AL championship series on Sunday, setting the tone for the Yankees in their six-game victory over the Los Angeles Angels with two overpowering outings.
"Sabathia is our leader," said Jorge Posada, who is headed to his sixth World Series.
The Yankees wrapped up the ALCS with a 5-2 victory in Game 6, meaning the 28-year-old Sabathia's next start will be a tantalizing one – he'll oppose former Cleveland teammate and AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee when New York plays Philadelphia on Wednesday night in the first World Series game at the new Yankee Stadium.
"I want to hit. I want to hit against him," Sabathia said of matching up against Lee, failing to note the designated hitter is used in the AL park. "They're the defending champs so we got to go through them."
With Sabathia on the mound potentially for three starts, the Yankees like their chances.
In the ALCS, the 6-foot-7, 290-pound lefty pitched eight innings of four-hit ball in cold, blustery conditions to win 4-1 in Game 1. He was equally overpowering in Game 4 in sunny Anaheim, giving up a run and five hits in eight innings – on three days' rest.
"CC has been the guy that the Yankees have paid a lot of money for and he's shown what he is capable to do," said Mariano Rivera, who earned his second save of the series Sunday night and his postseason-record 37th overall.
Signed to a $161 million, seven-year deal as the linchpin of the Yankees' $423.5 million offseason push to return to the playoffs after missing out in 2008, Sabathia has brushed aside the pressure of the postseason from start No. 1.
After tying for the major league lead with 19 wins, he shut down the Minnesota Twins in the opener of the division series and is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA in these playoffs. The success with New York comes after he went 2-3 with a 7.92 ERA in five previous postseason starts with Cleveland and Milwaukee.
He has struck out 20 in 22 innings, and opponents are hitting just .205 against him.
"CC was huge for us," manager Joe Girardi said. "Our starting pitching has been outstanding throughout."
Usually all business on the mound, Sabathia has shown emotion this October, especially in Game 1 against the Angels when he pumped his fist and shouted after striking out pinch-hitter Mike Napoli to end the seventh inning.
"This is a great feeling," Sabathia said. "This is what you come here for, to play in the postseason games and try to perform. This feels good but we have a long way to go. From Day 1 of spring training you could tell this was going to be a memorable year for us."
Sabathia has been the No. 1 starter the Yankees had spent millions looking for since Andy Pettitte left for Houston and Roger Clemens temporarily retired after the 2003 season. Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and Javier Vazquez all flopped in New York. And homegrown Chien-Ming Wang was a bust in the 2007 playoffs.
Sabathia slipped easily into the role, going 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 230 innings, his lowest total since 2006. The Yankees went 22-12 in his starts and were 8-4 when he started after a loss. He was 11-2 after the All-Star break.
"CC is a bona fide ace," Johnny Damon said. "That's why he's the MVP."
Girardi was sure to give Sabathia plenty of rest down the stretch after the Yankees built a big lead in the AL East, and it has paid off in the playoffs.
Sabathia has gone deep in all of his postseason starts and still looks fresh enough for the Fall Classic. His ability to quickly rebound helped Milwaukee reach the postseason last year and gives Girardi the luxury of going with a three-man rotation in the best-of-seven World Series.
Sabathia came close to reaching the World Series in 2007, when Cleveland had a two-game lead over Boston in the ALCS. The loss left a big impression on him and was one of the reasons he chose to sign with the experienced Yankees.
"This feels good," Sabathia said. "Being up 3-1 in '07, feeling like we had a chance to go to the World Series and having that taken away from you, it feels good now."