ARLINGTON, Texas -- CC Sabathia was so bad in the first inning of the AL championship series Friday night that his best pitch might have been one that bounced off the backstop.
It sure wasn't 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.
"They've bailed me out before," Sabathia said. "I've got to go out and pitch better next time out."
Sabathia allowed five runs in four innings, by far his worst start in six postseason games since joining the Yankees. It also was the shortest of his 36 starts in the regular season and playoffs in 2010.
"He was definitely off today," manager Joe Girardi said. "But he didn't give up 10 runs. He kept it at five and we were able to come back."
Sabathia wasn't 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. It could have been worse if the pitch that ricocheted off the wall behind home plate hadn't turned into an inning-ending out.
"I felt great, I felt strong," he said. "I just had no fastball command. ... I don't want to make any excuses. I couldn't throw the ball over the plate."
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 wasn't sharp in the opener last round, either, which he blamed on a long layoff. He actually had a longer wait this time but threw more in hopes of keeping his mechanics intact.
It didn't 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.
"That's the difference in the game, maybe," Girardi said. "It's a 6-6 game and maybe we're still playing."
Sabathia trudged back to the dugout having thrown 36 pitches that inning -- only 16 strikes. Girardi was astounded that Sabathia threw 20 balls, calling it "usually about six innings of work for him."
"I have to throw more strikes," Sabathia said. "When you're up, down, all over the place, you don't get calls. I was trying to battle and get them to put the ball in play. But I can't walk people."
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 didn't 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 doesn't include the really wild one; it went down as merely a ball because it led to an out.
The bullpen was as good as Sabathia was bad. Relievers Joba Chamberlain, Dustin Moseley, Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera allowed just one hit and two walks in five innings.
"You had an uncharacteristic start for him, but that happens," said Brett Gardner, whose infield single triggered a five-run eighth inning for the Yankees. "We've got guys in the bullpen who can come in and shut the door."
Still, Sabathia's numbers were a surprise. He was so good last postseason, especially the ALCS, allowing only two runs over 16 innings and named MVP.
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.
One bit of relief for New York was that Sabathia didn't get hurt on the play at the plate.
Then again, Girardi said, "If there is a collision at home plate, CC is going to win most of them."