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INDIANS Focused Sabathia looks to improve



Published: Wed, February 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Tribe ace came to camp hoping to shake off an inconsistent 2004 season.

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -- C.C. Sabathia's troubles last season weren't limited to his weight, ERA or Cleveland's shaky bullpen.

At times, the Indians ace was overwhelmed by personal hardships and tragic losses that tested the 24-year-old.

First, Sabathia's father died after a long illness shortly before the season began. Then, a close cousin and uncle died. Baseball was Sabathia's only solace and he kept pitching, but he wasn't the same.

"I had a lot going on, but Ill never make excuses," he said on Tuesday. "I felt I let my teammates down. I don't want to feel that way again."

Sabathia's statistics -- 11-10 with a 4.12 ERA -- weren't awful, but he wasn't the same dominating pitcher Indians fans have come to expect.

Blown leads by Cleveland's bullpen, injuries and just plain inconsistency took their toll on the left-hander. After one late-season start, a downcast Sabathia sat in front of his locker and was nearly in tears while talking to reporters.

A hole punched in a nearby column of the locker room was a telltale sign Sabathia wasn't happy.

Not all his fault

The problems weren't entirely Sabathia's fault. The bullpen failed to hold leads in six of his 30 starts after he left the game as the winning pitcher of record. As a harbinger of things to come, the bullpen blew leads in his first two starts of the season.

The 6-foot-7 Sabathia, generously listed at 290 pounds, thinks he learned the most important lesson of his career last season.

"I realized I needed to work hard in the off-season," he said. "In the past, I'd work hard during the season. Now I know doing it in the off-season might be more important than during the season."

Sabathia was scratched from a start in April because of a strained left biceps tendon. He left a start in June after one inning because of a sore left shoulder and missed a turn in the rotation. Sabathia didn't start a game after Sept. 16 because of a strained right hamstring.

The Indians hired a fitness coach to work with Sabathia during the winter. He appears to have lost about 10 to 15 pounds from the end of last season.

"I feel good," he said. "I feel stronger than I have in other years. I think this will help me stay strong all season."

Strong start

Sabathia enters his fifth season in the majors with a 54-35 career record. He is the youngest pitcher to reach 50 career wins among active major leaguers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau,

"I always set high goals for myself," he said. "You can't be satisfied with what you've done. You always want to do better."

Indians manager Eric Wedge feels the club's development and a deeper rotation should take some pressure off Sabathia.

"C.C. doesn't have to dominate," he said. "If he can be consistent and pitch deep into games, we know the numbers will take care of themselves. The talent is there. That's obvious."

Despite last season's turmoil, Sabathia goes into camp as the club's No. 1 starter and is expected to be the Indians opening day pitcher on April 4 against the Chicago White Sox.

The Indians expect their rotation to be one of the strengths. Sabathia will be backed by Jake Westbrook, who went from forgotten man to All-Star last season, Kevin Millwood, signed as a free agent, Scott Elarton and lefty Cliff Lee.

"I'm excited about our rotation," said Sabathia. "I think we have some depth and a lot of guys who can step up."




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