CLEVELAND - C.C. Sabathia's first trip to Cleveland started out as a big party. The 20-year-old top pitching prospect shared a downtown hotel suite with eight of his high school teammates from California for a few days before making his big league debut yesterday at Jacobs Field.
The Indians also flew in Sabathia's mom, and would have paid the freight for his dad, but the elder C.C. won't fly. After nursing Sabathia through three seasons in the minor leagues, the Tribe wanted to continue its best efforts to make the kid comfortable, make him feel right at home before he finally took the mound here in Cleveland.
Sabathia got a lively reception from the 40,754 on hand for his baptism into the big leagues, and then survived a tumultuous first inning. He did not figure in the decision as the Tribe came back to beat Baltimore 4-3.
After starting out the game by smoking a 95 mph fastball past Brady Anderson on his first pitch, Sabathia gave up a hit and a walk before Jeff Conine welcomed him to the majors with a three-run homer into the leftfield grandstands. Sabathia worked 52/3 innings, gave up just one hit past the first inning, and struck out three.
“I really wasn't thinking about everything that was going on - I was just trying to get my feet on the ground,” Sabathia said. “I wanted to take it nice and easy, but I think it's real hard to stay calm in a situation like that. I looked up in the stands and saw my mom, and that was probably the proudest moment in my life.”
Sabathia got the next two batters out after Conine's home run, and over the next four innings the big lefty allowed just one baserunner. Tribe manager Charile Manuel lifted Sabathia after he walked Conine with two out in the sixth and the Indians trailing 3-2.
“He did exactly what we wanted him to do out there,” Manuel said. “And maybe that home run was my fault, because I told him to be aggressive, and he was throwing all fastballs at the start. We wanted C.C. to go after them. I like what I saw. It may not sound OK, but that three-run homer is OK, because I really felt like we'd get him some runs.”
Sabathia, a 6-7, 260-pound mountain of a young man, said the home run did not rattle him, but that he might have been a bit too keyed up in that first inning.
“I wasn't down at all after that,” he said, “I was just concentrating on getting out of the inning. I was excited at the start and I was overthrowing the ball, so I just had to calm down and pitch. It was a great outing, as far as I'm concerned
The Indians gave Sabathia some support with a pair of solo home runs from Ellis Burks and Russell Branyan, but when Sabathia turned things over to Justin Speier in the sixth, the Indians still trailed 3-2.
Cleveland went on top with two runs in the bottom of the seventh. Einar Diaz led off and ripped a shot past a diving Cal Ripken at third for a double, and Omar Vizquel walked in between a couple of infield outs. Juan Gonzalez then slashed a two-out liner into left, scoring Diaz and Vizquel to make it 4-3.
Paul Shuey came out of the Tribe bullpen and pitched a perfect eighth, and Bob Wickman gave up a walk in the ninth before earning his second save of the year.
“You couldn't ask for a better outing from C.C.,” Shuey said. “Yeah, he gave up a three-run homer and got rattled a bit, but he came right back and shut them down, You're going to win a lot of ball games if you are the kind of pitcher who can bounce back like that.”
Manuel, who will send another bright prospect, 22-year-old Tim Drew, to the mound tomorrow night in the second of three games at Chicago, said Sabathia showed him a lot by not falling apart after the first-inning home run.
“A young pitcher like that, it's good to see him come back from that,” Manuel said. “I think after that first inning he got stronger, and that's because he didn't let Conine's homer get to him. He just kept pitching, and that's what you like to see. It was just a matter of time before he got broken in, anyways.”
Sabathia is likely the most celebrated lefty from the Cleveland system since Sam McDowell, who led the American League in strikeouts four times in the 1960s and won 20 games in 1970. But the kid might have a hard time understanding his place in history.
People in the Cleveland camp have compared Sabathia's package of power and size to former Twin Jim Kaat and former Astro flame-thrower J.R. Richard. But they forgot that those guys played before Sabathia was born in 1980.
“The guy didn't know who J.R. Richard is,” Burks said. “That kind of messed me up.”