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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Indians leaning heavily on Sabathia as ace

C.C. Sabathia has logged double-digit win totals in each of his first five seasons in the big leagues.

The last Cleveland Indians pitcher to do that was Luis Tiant, the king of the quirky windup, in the 1960s.

Sabathia, a former first-round draft pick, is only 25.

The burly left-hander's 69 career wins are the most among major league pitchers his age or younger - by a mile.

Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs is a distant second with 48.

With American League ERA champion Kevin Millwood gone to the Texas Rangers, the pressure of leading the Indians pitchers now falls squarely on Sabathia's large shoulders.

It's a mighty tall order.

Can the 6-7, 290-pound Sabathia handle being the ace of a staff that led the AL in ERA a year ago and has an 18-game winner in lefty Cliff Lee?

"C.C. has lived with pressure and expectations since his rookie season," Indians general manger Mark Shapiro said. "Kevin's departure does not add any more pressure to him."

Sabathia, who won 15 games last year, will start the major league opener tonight when Cleveland plays the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.

It will be the third opening day start in four years for Sabathia.

He was scheduled to pitch last year's opener for the Tribe, but began the season on the disabled list with a rib cage injury.

"I'm pretty excited," Sabathia said. "There's something special about pitching on opening day. It gets your adrenaline pumping."

Sabathia has had a lot of success against the White Sox, going 8-3 with a 4.23 ERA in 14 career starts.

And he has been perfect and nearly unhittable at U.S. Cellular Field, where he is 5-0 with a 2.28 ERA.

"I try not to put numbers on anything, because it's definitely a team effort and a team game," Sabathia said. "It takes a lot of factors to win baseball games. Sometimes, it's just luck and sometimes you've just got to be good."

Sabathia's fastball has been known to hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

If he can keep both his pitches and weight under control, a 20-win season is certainly within reach.

"For me, my main focus is not on winning 20 games or beating the White Sox," he said. "It's on staying healthy. I know if I do that, everything else will work itself out."

Sabathia was overpowering down the stretch last year, compiling a 9-1 record and 2.24 ERA in his last 11 starts.

However, the Indians folded in the final week, losing six of their final seven games. They missed out on the playoffs despite winning 93 games.

Sabathia believes the Tribe learned from that disastrous finish and will be much better for it.

"That experience is definitely going to help us and we are going to make a playoff push this season," he said. "Nobody wants to feel the disappointment again that we felt after the last game last year. It took me a little while to get over it.

"Once I thought back on it, we had a great season. We managed to win 93 ballgames. It's going to be tough to improve on that, but we're definitely going to go out there and try to do it. I believe if we win 93 games this year, we'll get in the playoffs, no doubt."

Sabathia, a two-time All-Star, is coming off a real rocky spring. He had an 0-2 record with an 8.35 ERA in five starts.

But he is confident that he will bounce back and be on top of his game tonight.

There's no reason to doubt Sabathia.

He has prospered in the Windy City and has all but owned the White Sox.



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