CLEVELAND (AP) -Shortly after arriving at a spruced-up Jacobs Field on Tuesday, C.C. Sabathia strolled across the hallway from Cleveland's clubhouse and slid into a chair for a haircut.
He wants to look his best. Sabathia's got an important date in a few days.
One that's been delayed for six Octobers.
When Cleveland last made the AL playoffs in 2001, Sabathia was 21, a raw-but-talented rookie who was just along for the ride. Back then, he never could have imagined it would take him so long to get back.
``I was kind of young and really didn't know what was going on,'' he said, wiping sweat from his forehead following a workout. ``But that's what makes it even more rewarding and gratifying this time.''
On Thursday, Sabathia's lengthy wait is over. The large left-hander, who had to learn to control emotional outbursts on the mound that threatened to derail his promising career, will start Game 1 when the Al Central champion Indians host the New York Yankees, a team the 27-year-old hasn't faced since 2004.
Three years ago, Sabathia was having trouble keeping it together. He was prone to eruptions on the field - and off it. Following a particularly tough loss that season, Sabathia punched a hole in a pillar near his locker.
The laid-back Californian with the easy smile, infectious laugh and 95 mph heater was stressed out. An umpire's tight strike zone or a rough inning would send him over the edge. He had endured the death of his father, uncle and a close cousin in a six-month span.
And on top of all that, the Indians were in the midst of a rebuilding plan with Sabathia the No. 1 starter on a young team seemingly headed nowhere.
``It was all a slap in the face,'' he said.
Sabathia wasn't himself and he knew it. But just as he was about to unravel completely, he found peace.
``I can't really point to a game or a month really when it happened,'' he said. ``I think it was just getting older. You finally get tired of worrying about things you can't control like umpires or people getting hits.
``I learned to control what I can on the mound, and everything else, just let it go.''
The next checkpoint in Sabathia's journey will come in the pressure cooker that is postseason baseball. His calm will be tested like never before against the Yankees, who went 6-0 against the Indians this season.
Sabathia is 1-7 with a 7.13 ERA in eight career starts against New York, but hasn't matched up with the Bronx Bombers since Sept. 1, 2004.
``It is weird,'' he said of the three-year gap. ``But I'll get my chances against them in two days and I'm excited.''
The Indians are no less pumped to have him in the leadoff spot.
Sabathia, who won his playoff debut - and lone start - in the 2001 postseason against Seattle, has been Cleveland's ace all season. He went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA, set career-highs in starts (34) and strikeouts (209) and became the first Indians pitcher to lead the majors in innings (241) since Early Wynn in 1954.
If not for a prolonged offensive slump by the Indians during a stretch of 10 starts from July 29-Sept. 8 when he didn't allow more than two earned runs, C.C. could change his initials to C.Y. - as in Cy Young Award winner.
``He's done everything you could ask of somebody,'' designated hitter Travis Hafner said. ``If we've got a losing streak he seems to stop it. He keeps winning streaks going. He never complains about anything.
``He always seems to do the right things. He's a great example for young players as well. He's got a toughness and competitiveness about him that I think is contagious to the rest of the team.''
The Indians feed off Sabathia, and he feeds off them.
He's only on the field once every five days, but Sabathia is the undisputed leader on a team that improved as the season rolled along. After the Indians clinched the division title in their final home game at the Jake, Sabathia gathered his teammates in the middle of the clubhouse for an emotional champagne toast.
The championship was especially satisfying for Sabathia, a model of consistency and modesty.
After virtually every one of his starts, Sabathia would downplay his role in a victory by saying the only thing that mattered to him was getting back to the playoffs. He said it, and those around him believed it.
``He was here in 2001 and it's been a true goal,'' Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said. ``All he's cared about was getting the ball in Game 1 of the playoffs. It was genuine. I feel like his teammates and the coaching staff wanted 20 wins for him more than he did.
``He wants to take this team to the next level and raise a World Series flag. These guys know how much he wants it.''
First, though, he'll have to deal with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambia and the rest of the Yankees.
He's got his ample hands full. The Yankees do, too.
``We haven't faced C.C. in a while,'' Jeter said. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's a power pitcher. He's going to come after you. He's not going to try to fool you. So, yeah, we're going to have to be ready. It's going to be a challenge.''
While resting on a chair outside the Indians' weight room, Sabathia, who notched his 100th career win in his last start, considered whether the long gap since facing New York's hitters would give him any advantage.
``I don't know,'' he said. ``They're pretty much the same guys. I've got a little more control since I've seen them last, so we'll see.''

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