ARLINGTON, TEXAS // CC Sabathia was so bad in the first inning of the AL championship series last night that his best pitch might have been one that bounced off the backstop.
It certainly was not the one that Josh Hamilton put over the wall. Or the four in a row that walked the No 8 hitter.
Pitching nine days after his last outing, Sabathia opened the ALCS looking like anything but the ace who led the New York Yankees to the World Series title last year.
The Yankees found a way to win anyway, turning a 5-0 deficit when Sabathia left into a 6-5 victory in Game 1.
Sabathia allowed five runs in four innings, by far his worst start in six post-season games since joining the Yankees. It also was the shortest of his 36 starts in the regular season and play-offs in 2010.
Sabathia did not look comfortable from the start.
Tugging at his uniform, stepping on and off the rubber, sweating heavily, he gave up three runs in the opening inning.
With New York using a four-man rotation, Sabathia will be back on regular rest for his next start in Game 5 on Wednesday night - that is, if the series goes that long.
Sabathia was not sharp in the opener last round, either, which he blamed on a long lay-off. He actually had a longer wait this time but threw more in hopes of keeping his mechanics intact.
It did not work.
He opened with a walk, then a hard-hit single. Both scored on the homer by Hamilton, who had been 1 for 10 against Sabathia. That put the Yankees down 3-0 before they had recorded an out.
Two more hits and a walk loaded the bases with two outs, bringing Derek Jeter to the mound for what appeared to be more advice than encouragement.
Disaster seemed to strike when Sabathia uncorked a pitch that went to the wall a good 40 feet beyond home plate. Instead, a perfect carom brought it back to catcher Jorge Posada and he made a perfect toss to Sabathia covering the plate. He tagged Nelson Cruz's left elbow just before his foot reached the plate for the final out of the inning.
Sabathia trudged back to the dugout having thrown 36 pitches that inning - only 16 strikes.
The Rangers got to him again in the fourth, with Michael Young driving in two runs with a two-out double. Sabathia struck out Hamilton looking to end the threat, then the big lefty went to the Yankees dugout and did not return.
Sabathia's line was five runs and six hits, with four walks and three strikeouts. He also had a balk and a wild pitch. That does not include the really wild one; it went down as merely a ball because it led to an out.
The performance was a stunning disappointment for New York. Sabathia had been so good last post-season, especially the ALCS; he allowed only two runs over 16 innings and was named MVP. Even when he struggled in the opener of last round, he and the Yankees found a way to grind it out.
Now the Yankees must hope Sabathia is not headed toward a repeat of his 2007 ALCS. Pitching for Cleveland, he was crushed in Games 1 and 5.