The New York Yankees opted to go without their highest-paid player with their season on the line. Fortunately, the one with the second-largest salary was able to provide a big return on the team's investment.
Behind a complete-game gem from CC Sabathia, the Yankees outlasted the Baltimore Orioles by a 3-1 score in the deciding Game 5 of an American League Division Series filled with nail-biting finishes and dramatic moments, with perhaps the most captivating one taking place prior to Friday's clincher.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi brought some additional intrigue to the contest by electing to bench Alex Rodriguez, with the star third baseman mired in a 2- for-16 slump over the first four games in which he struck out nine times.
But while Rodriguez's removal from the lineup became the primary pregame storyline, Sabathia (2-0) was clearly the headliner of the matchup itself. The ace lefty held the Orioles to a mere four hits and two walks while fanning nine batters in a 121-pitch masterpiece that catapulted the Yankees into the next round, where the Bronx Bombers will host Detroit in Game 1 of the ALCS Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
"It is what I am here for," said Sabathia afterward. "I guess I should feel a little pressure or something like that, but I don't. I feel like I need to go out and win every time out. And I think that takes a lot of pressure off me, the outside pressure off me. I put so much pressure on myself to go out and perform well that I expect it."
Raul Ibanez, whose ninth-inning homer pinch-hitting for a scuffling Rodriguez helped lift the Yankees to victory in Game 3, singled in another key run on Friday to help New York advance. The Yankees also received an RBI double from Ichiro Suzuki, while Curtis Granderson finished 2-for-3 with a solo homer in the win.
Lew Ford singled in the lone run for Baltimore, which took the more experienced Yankees right to the wire in the franchise's first postseason appearance since 1997, while starting pitcher Jason Hammel (0-1) allowed two runs on four hits while striking out six in 5 2/3 innings.
"They are a very good club and they are a very resilient club," said Girardi of the Orioles. "You have a bunch of young kids over there that just play the game the right way and play hard. People thought they were going to go away, they never went away. And I am very proud of our club for staying in."
Girardi's controversial decision to sit Rodriguez didn't exactly pan out, as replacement Eric Chavez went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in place of the three-time AL Most Valuable Player. His choice of Sabathia, now 7-1 in 12 career playoff starts since joining the Yankees as a highly-coveted free agent prior to the 2009 campaign, to pitch in an elimination setting proved to be far more beneficial.
A series marked by tight pitcher's duels delivered another one early on in the finale, with both Sabathia and Hammel opening up with three perfect innings and a leadoff single in the fourth by Baltimore's Nate McLouth accounting for the only baserunner on either side.
Hammel actually set down the first 12 Yankees batters until Mark Teixeira singled to begin the bottom of the fifth. The usually stationary first baseman then orchestrated a surprising steal of second -- he swiped just two bags during the regular season -- and came home with the game's first run when Ibanez singled under the glove of a diving Baltimore second baseman Robert Andino.
McLouth came within inches of tying the score a half-inning later, yanking a Sabathia fastball into the second deck but just inside the right-field foul pole. Following a brief replay review, he would strike out on the next pitch.
"I couldn't tell, I knew it was real close," Orioles manager Buck Showalter remarked. "Someone said it nicked the pole, but that didn't beat us."
Sabathia would stymie the Baltimore bats again in the seventh, right after Hammel's night came to a close when he walked Derek Jeter in the sixth and Suzuki laced a one-out double into the gap in right center, knocking in the New York captain and extending the Bronx Bombers' advantage to 2-0.
Granderson increased the lead further by crushing a hanging slider from Troy Patton into the seats in right during the bottom of the seventh. But as has been the case all throughout the series, the Orioles weren't about to go down without a fight.
Matt Wieters ended Sabathia's string of eight consecutive outs by starting the eighth with a single and Manny Machado drew a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. Two batters later, Ford lined a base hit to left to send Wieters home from second and finally get Baltimore on the board.
Andino followed with an infield hit to load the bases with one out, but Sabathia came through with a huge strikeout of McLouth before inducing an inning-ending grounder from J.J. Hardy to keep the score at 3-1.
"We had a shot there in the eighth, and he took it to another level, if there is such a thing," said Showalter.
The Orioles couldn't mount a threat against Sabathia in the ninth, however, with the big lefty retiring Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Wieters in order to finish off his first career postseason complete game.
Counting the regular season, the Yankees won 12 of the 23 meetings between the AL East rivals and outscored the Orioles by a slim 106-102 margin ... Sabathia is now unbeaten in his last eight postseason starts, having gone 4-0 with a 3.97 ERA over that stretch, and the Yankees are 10-2 in their last 12 games in which he's began on the mound ... Jones, Baltimore's leader in batting average (.287) during the regular season, ended 0-for-4 on Friday and was 2-for-23 for the series ... Granderson had been 1-for-16 over the first four games.