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Playoff spotlight doesn't faze Carmona

Playoff spotlight doesn't faze Carmona

CLEVELAND -- If Andy Pettitte rightfully could be considered the gold standard of postseason pitchers, making his 35th career playoff start and in search of his 15th playoff victory Friday evening at Jacobs Field, then Fausto Carmona would be viewed as ...?

Well, it's hard to put a label on the talented Cleveland right-hander at this early stage of his career.

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Carmona has the massive and sturdy frame to help the National Football League's entry from Cleveland. Carrying a 19-8 regular-season mark and a 3.06 ERA into Friday's second game of this American League Division Series, Carmona also brings with him a 2007 performance that will earn the 23-year-old considerable American League Cy Young support.

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The only certainties surrounding Carmona are that he will throw the ball hard against the Yankees, with great movement on almost all of his pitches, and that the Indians need Carmona's first-ever playoff appearance to be as solid as one that would be expected from a seasoned veteran. Thanks to Cleveland's 12-3 victory in the series opener Thursday, a great deal of pressure already has been taken away from Carmona's start.

Using Carmona's demeanor during his Thursday press conference as an early barometer, nerves shouldn't be an issue as much as command of his pitches.

"I know it's a big game, but that doesn't bother me," said Carmona, through translator and Cleveland first-base coach Luis Rivera. "It's the same baseball. I pitched against those guys before, and I'm not going to approach it like any different date.

"They've got a great lineup, but when I get on the mound, I don't look at names. I just go after the hitters. It will be no different than their best hitter to the ninth hitter. Everybody is going to be the same."

Carmona faced the Yankees on April 19 in New York, allowing two earned runs on six hits over six innings, and finishing with a no-decision. His seventh loss this season came against the Yankees at home on Aug. 10, when Carmona yielded four runs on eight hits over seven innings. But Carmona was about as close to unhittable as a starter can be during the final month of 2007.

In five September starts made for a team battling to claim the AL Central title and best record in baseball, Carmona posted a 5-0 record with a 1.78 ERA. He fanned 27 and walked nine over 35 1/3 innings, making better use of his changeup as a complement to his devastating sinker.

The strong finish proved Carmona was more than just a one- or two-month flash in the pan. He was a true pitcher, growing with each trip to the mound.

"He's in tremendous condition. It seems he gets taller and thicker every day he walks through the door," said Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis, adding that Carmona's sinker, coupled with the high velocity at which he throws, reminds him of Kevin Brown. "He pays close attention and works extremely hard. His work ethic is great."

"Now, he's a guy that has a real good understanding of what he needs to do with this five-day routine, the routine in which he works physically and fundamentally and mentally," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge added. "But we need to emphasize, he's a pitcher. He's not out there throwing the baseball. He's out there pitching. He has a game plan."

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Although Carmona's 215 innings pitched this season stand far and away as the highest total at any level of his professional career, Willis said the Indians have taken steps to monitor his workload by backing off the volume of Carmona's pitches during bullpen sessions, starting in August. Both Willis and Wedge also credited Victor Martinez, the team's star catcher known more for his offensive prowess, in forming a strong battery bond with Carmona.

"Victor does a great job slowing him down," Willis said. "Once [Carmona] gets through the first inning, it kind of becomes just another game again, even though it's obviously a postseason game."

Ultimately, the credit for Carmona's success primarily falls on the broad shoulders of the native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Carmona's brief but disastrous run as the Cleveland closer in 2006 has been well-documented, with David Ortiz and Ivan Rodriguez hitting walkoff home runs against the shell-shocked hurler on July 31 and Aug. 5, respectively.

Wedge pointed out Thursday how people forget Carmona's six-week run of excellence as a setup man last year prior to becoming the closer, but Carmona's future was as a starting pitcher. He made four starts to conclude 2006, worked in that role during winter ball, and came to Spring Training ready to challenge for a spot in the rotation.

"Playing winter ball helped me out, gave me confidence," Carmona said. "I worked on the things that I felt like I needed to be successful in the big leagues this year if I got an opportunity. When I came back to Spring Training, I was ready to go and felt great. Everything had to happen the year before, but I learned a lot from what happened. It was behind me."

"How he handled [his struggles as a closer], the way he learned from that, then getting back on track and built up as a starter, and then he goes and plays winter ball and wants to and needs to and understands why," Wedge added. "Obviously, the way this year's played out, you know that was as important for us as anything for him to continue to pitch last year."

Some of that steely resolve needs to be on display Friday for Carmona. He's going against one of the all-time greats in the postseason, but tough challenges don't seem to bother this rejuvenated Cleveland pitcher.

"You love that about the postseason. You know you're going to see the other team's best arms," said Pettitte of working against Carmona. "He throws awfully hard with great movement. He's going to be tough."

A stellar effort from Carmona also could present the Indians with a seemingly insurmountable two-game lead in this best-of-five opening series. But Wedge only looks at the big picture through the next game at hand.

"We've got to turn the page and do some work [Thursday night] and prepare [Friday] and just make sure that these guys come out here and just take the same approach to the game that they took [Thursday] and they've been doing for quite a while now," Wedge said. "So, in one sense, yes, we want them to just keep pushing and keep doing what they've been doing.

"Second to that, now we've got to come out and prepare for a different starting pitcher. And we have to make sure our guy is ready to go and start all over."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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