The problem was, it took Sabathia three innings to discover that form.
So by the time he figured out the Royals' plan to attack his first-pitch fastballs, the Tribe was behind five runs and on its way to a 6-5 loss in front of 31,599 fans at Jacobs Field.
Not even a never-say-die Indians offense that put the tying run at second base with one out in the bottom of the ninth could rescue Cleveland on this night.
Few games will better illustrate baseball's capricious nature than this one.
Sabathia, whose brilliant first half saw him become the first Cleveland pitcher in 11 years to win 12 games before July, was coming off his season's toughest outing in Detroit. And not once this season had the 26-year-old lefty disappointed in consecutive starts.
Relief would surely come in the form of a last-place Kansas City team that Sabathia tossed a shutout against earlier this season, right?
The Royals had a plan. They would attack Sabathia early, and they executed it to perfection.
The big blows came on -- surprise -- first-pitch fastballs.
Billy Butler drove a two-run double in the first inning, and Emil Brown lined a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers in the third.
"I was just missing on the plate a lot," Sabathia said. "They definitely came out with a game plan to swing early."
Yet as Indians manager Eric Wedge said, "jumping on him is one thing, getting to him is another."
The left-hander has now dropped two straight starts and given up 13 runs over 11 innings. So what gives?
Sabathia insists that nothing is wrong, saying his velocity and mechanics are fine. Maybe then you can believe the southpaw when he maintains that Saturday was simply one of those nights.
"I feel good," Sabathia said. "I may have just thrown too many strikes."
Seventy-two strikes to be exact. But at least those strikes got better as the game went on.
Instead of the get-me-over first-pitch fastballs the Royals battered early, Sabathia began to mix in his pitches. And unlike his last start in Detroit, he managed to right himself, allowing just one run over his final four innings.
"He did a good job [late]," Wedge said. "We had to make some adjustments, and I felt he did."
So if Sabathia is only worried about keeping his team in the game -- the age-old maxim that all pitchers must blindly pronounce -- then it was mission accomplished.
His teammates indeed gave him a chance to win. The Tribe's bats finally got to Gil Meche with a pair of runs in the fourth and fifth innings before Ryan Garko's two-run homer with nobody out in the sixth ended the right-hander's night.
"Our guys did a great job of fighting back like they do," Wedge said.
The last fight came in the ninth. Trailing 6-5 and facing Royals closer Octavio Dotel, yet another last at-bat victory at The Jake looked to be developing as Grady Sizemore lined a one-out double to the left-field wall.
The crowd was on its feet. The drum was beating from the left-field bleachers. The Indians were all lined up on the home dugout's top step, seemingly waiting for the big hit that has come to be the norm these days.
As Jason Michaels said before the game, "We always seem to be putting ourselves in position where something magical can happen."
The magic, however, was put on hold.
Casey Blake and Victor Martinez consecutively flew out to left field to end the game.
Sabathia may have eventually put away the shovel, but even for a club with 27 come-from-behind victories, the trench proved too deep.
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.