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Tribe bats come to ace Sabathia's aid

Tribe bats come to ace Sabathia's aid

CLEVELAND -- Playing with an ace in the hole always enhances the chances for victory, as any good gambler will admit.

But there are plenty of times when an ace needs to be supported in order to take the hand. Or in the case of the Indians' offense backing C.C. Sabathia on Thursday at Jacobs Field, the support came in order to capture Game 1 of the American League Division Series from the Yankees.

Sabathia clearly didn't have his best stuff, throwing 114 pitches over five innings and issuing six free passes, one intentional. To present an example of the big left-hander's usual pinpoint control, Sabathia walked only 37 in 241 innings during the entire 2007 campaign.

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Whenever Sabathia found trouble on Thursday, namely the first and fifth innings, he managed to keep the damage to a minimum. And whenever Sabathia found his way out of said trouble, the Indians answered with momentum-building rallies of their own off New York's 19-game-winner Chien-Ming Wang.

Both scenarios stand out as true signs of championship-caliber baseball. On Thursday, the Indians simply were satisfied to pick up the franchise's first playoff victory since 2001.

"To answer when a team scores, it really changes the momentum of the game," said Cleveland first baseman Ryan Garko, who had three of the Indians' 14 hits, including his first playoff home run. "When you get two-out RBIs, that's a real big momentum swing."

"Offensively, I think both teams did a pretty good job of making the opposing pitcher work," Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said. "There was a lot of hunting going on up there at home plate and staying away from sinkers or fastballs just off or just down and looking for good pitches to hit. We just did a little bit better job tonight of capitalizing on those opportunities."

New York wasted little time grabbing the lead, as Johnny Damon homered exactly five pitches into the contest. Sabathia needed 33 pitches to get out of the first inning, but allowed just the one run, stranding Bobby Abreu at second and Alex Rodriguez at first after walking both.

Garko's words rang true in the bottom of the first, as the Indians began their immediate comeback after Asdrubal Cabrera's double-play grounder. Garko delivered the game-tying single, followed two batters later by Kenny Lofton's bases-loaded single to score two more.

The venerable Lofton finished with three hits, four RBIs and one stolen base in his return to playoff baseball with Cleveland. Yet, this was a group annihilation of the Yankees.

After cutting the lead to 4-3 in the fifth, the Yankees had the bases loaded with one out when Sabathia intentionally passed Rodriguez. Showing the qualities of a true Cy Young Award contender, Sabathia struck out Jorge Posada after falling behind 3-0 and then retired Hideki Matsui on a popup to shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

Victor Martinez's two-out, two-run blast in the bottom of the inning scored Travis Hafner ahead of him, with Casey Blake capping off the five-run answer with a two-run double to right. The Yankees were a beaten team, at this point, with the Cleveland offense almost making it look easy.

"No, nothing is easy in this game," said Blake with a laugh. "With baseball, I don't know if momentum is the right word, because it's such a slow moving game. But it was big for us to come and score some runs that next inning. To shut them down and score runs, it's always big."

"I think the fifth inning was the inning where we cut it to one and then they extended it," Yankees manager Joe Torre added. "That was the key, and the first inning, obviously they got more out of it than we did."

On countless occasions during this highly charged 2007 campaign, the Indians gave Sabathia two or three runs and wished him good luck on the road to victory. The ace stood alone, and on 19 occasions, the ace stood high, with no room to bluff.

Mark Thursday's playoff opener as a little offensive payback for Sabathia. The Cleveland hitters had the broad back of their top hurler, although considering the situation, it might have been one of the best pitched games in Sabathia's stellar career.

"C.C. gives us a chance to win every time out, whether we score zero runs or 10 runs," Garko said. "That's our ace. That's what we expect out of him."

"That's what he has done all year, keep us in the game, even when we didn't score for him," Blake added. "It's nice to finally get him some run support."

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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