A survivor’s milestone

2019-04-30 CCSabathia

CC Sabathia about to release the changeup that turned into strikeout number 3,000 Monday night . . .

It didn’t happen before the home crowd. It didn’t have to. A Yankee fan made it very clear with the placard he hoisted: “I traveled over 3,000 miles to see CC Sabathia get his 3,000th K. NJ -> LA -> SF -> ARI.” But even the Chase Field audience couldn’t resist the loud standing O after Sabathia fooled Diamondbacks catcher John Ryan Murphy with a changeup in the bottom of the second.

Technically, Sabathia struck out the side to get there. He caught David Peralta leading off, looking at a sinkerball that didn’t sink too far in the low zone. He got Christian Walker to swing and miss on a cutter that wasn’t likely to threaten the stature of his former, Hall of Fame teammate Mariano Rivera.

Then Sabathia was rudely interrupted when a cutter that didn’t quite cut the way he probably hoped met former Met Wilmer Flores’s bat on its way over the left field fence, and Nick Ahmed followed up by doing whatever he could with a changeup and making it work enough to beat out an infield single.

Up came Murphy, a former Yankee who’d caught Sabathia in the past, a righthanded hitter with a little power of his own. Sabathia worked him inside to open, missing with the first pitch before he fouled off a pair. Then Sabathia went a little up in the zone and fouled that one off. That was a quartet of cutters. Then came the changeup taking a neat little dive under Murphy’s swinging bat head.

Sabathia seemed at first to be the only man in Chase Field who looked like it was just another day at the office. His Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez pumped a fist and clung to the milestone ball for dear life. The rest of his teammates swarmed him near the Yankee dugout while his wife and four children roared in the stands with the rest of the crowd. Sabathia made sure to get some hugs from his lady and his kids before letting his mates have at him.

“Count me in,” Sanchez told reporters after the game. “I was one of those that was super excited and happy and desperate for those three strikeouts. Once we were able to get those strikeouts I was able to relax a little bit. Exciting, exciting just understanding what the milestone is and I was just super excited.”

Count Sabathia in, too. The third lefthander in baseball history to cross the 3,000 threshold (after Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson) came a long way, baby. “Since the end of last year, you coming up short 14 strikeouts . . . it’s the only thing I have been thinking about the last six months,” he told reporters. “So, actually to have it now be over it and I can just worry about the season and try to win games.”

The Yankees so resemble a M*A*S*H post-op ward these days that a lot of people worried how they’d go forward trying to win games, too. But, pun intended, they’ve bloody well done it. So much so that the comparably banged up Nationals in the National League East aren’t earning many sympathy points, which is a little unfair. Except that maybe even the Yankees are a little surprised that they still look like American League East beasts no matter how many key men are still in the ward.

“It was one of those things where it was kind of inevitable, but it’s not something we really talk about,” said manager Aaron Boone, whose own playing career included an exercise in futility against Sabathia: one hit, four strikeouts, and a .167/.167/.167 slash line.

“It was kind of wait and see, see how it happens and it obviously happened at the end of the inning, so we were able to congratulate him coming off the field and not take too big of a break in the game,” Boone continued. “It was kind of fitting that he was leading off the next inning. It’s something that we can really sit down and put things into perspective, you can look back on it as a really, really special accomplishment.”

Special may be a polite way to phrase it. There was a time when nobody thought he would make it far enough to land the milestone he landed Monday night. Including Sabathia himself.

He was a throwback, an innings-eater who thought nothing of going long distance (he led the majors in innings pitched twice with 241 innings or better) while pitching like a dominator, in Cleveland, in Milwaukee (he made the Brewers’ brief 2008 postseason trip possible almost by himself in the second half of that season), and in New York, turning his left arm into considerable money and looking like it was just a question of when, not if he’d get his own set of keys to Cooperstown.

Then Sabathia’s body began betraying him. Most of the betrayal came from his right knee, part of the leg on which he lands when he delivers, and it turned the big, bearish lefthander—never exactly the poster child for a classic male athlete’s physique to begin with (he always looked the way you’d imagine aging Babe Ruth to look if Ruth had remained a pitcher)—into a man whose workhorse days were history.

So were his days as a power pitcher. His once-formidable fastball and his stamina went AWOL. If he wanted to survive long enough to finish what he started, the $161 million free agency deal he signed with the Yankees in the first place, the one out of which he opted and turned into a little more money, Sabathia had to reinvent himself.

Especially after he shocked the game two days before the 2015 American League wild card game, when he went into manager Joe Girardi’s office in the Camden Yards visiting clubhouse and told him he would check into a Connecticut rehabilitation facility. He’d binged so badly during that set in Baltimore that he actually needed to detox first.

Sabathia remains in recovery. Meanwhile, to remake himself as a pitcher, he looked to the classics to do it, the old stereotype of the cleverly crafty lefthander who lived on something close enough to junk, developing a different kind of changeup, adding a cutter that cut just enough to keep him alive, and going to his slider a lot more often than before. He learned to live at the back end of the Yankee rotation and in the junkyard, he worked for his five or six innings’ work every few days, and he survived.

Then he underwent knee surgery this past offseason, not to mention an angioplasty, and he decided going in that 2019 would be the final season of his career. He also decided to enjoy every moment of it as best he could with whatever he had left in the tank. His days as a mound howitzer too far gone to kid himself, nailing number 3,000 testified to something better. His spirit.

The Diamondbacks to their credit didn’t mind the Yankees basking in the moment of Sabathia’s milestone. He’s the seventeenth pitcher to reach it, the first having been Hall of Famer Walter Johnson in July 1923 (the Indians’ Stan Coveleski was his milestone victim) and the last having been Hall of Famer John Smoltz when he punched out the Nationals’ Felipe Lopez in April 2008.

Murphy is a seven-year veteran who isn’t likely to find himself in Cesar Geronimo’s position. (We hope.) That center fielder for the Big Red Machine found himself a Number 3,000 twice before his career ended: Hall of Famer Bob Gibson rang him up for number 3,000 in July 1974—which made Gibson only the second man to cross the threshold—and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan nailed him in July 1980.

Four more pitchers crossed the 3,000 threshold before Geronimo’s career ended: Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, and Don Sutton. Their milestone victims weren’t exactly fish cakes, either: in order, Keith Hernandez, Tim Wallach, Garry Templeton, and Alan Bannister. There’s one five-season streak of 3,000th-Ks (1980-84, with Ryan, Seaver, Carlton, Jenkins, and Sutton) and one four-season streak. (2005-08, with, in order, Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, not-yet Hall of Famer Curt Schilling, and Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Smoltz.)

“”I want to make sure that I say it loud and clear that if you’re a baseball fan, you have to appreciate what you saw,” said Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo. “You saw somebody that’s been going out there for a long time since he’s been 19 years old and he’s done it at a very high level every single year. There’s never really been a down turn. Maybe when I knew him a long time ago, he was more of a fireballer and now he’s learned how to pitch, and it’s fun to watch.”

“I’ve played against him for 12 years,” said Diamondbacks right fielder Adam Jones, who’d tangled with Sabathia on many a day as an Oriole, “and I can say that the competition against him is always A-1. You always know when you face him that the intensity is going to be high. He deserves everything that’s coming his way.”

Jones is well aware that Sabathia also belongs to a particularly exclusive club: the third black pitcher to punch out 3,000 hitters or more, with Gibson and Jenkins; and, the threesome are known as members of the so-called Black Aces, African-American pitchers credited with 20 or more wins in single seasons. (The founder, Brooklyn Dodger legend Don Newcombe, died earlier this year; the other members are Sam Jones, Mudcat Grant, Earl Wilson, Al Downing—the same Al Downing who surrendered Henry Aaron’s record-setting 715th lifetime home run—Vida Blue, J.R. Richard, Dwight Gooden, Dave Stewart, and Dontrelle Willis.)

Sabathia is, too. “Being a ‘Black Ace’ is something that I take very seriously,” he said. “So to be on that list as one of three guys with 3,000 strikeouts, it’s hard to grasp, it’s hard to think about it. But it’s cool to be on that list.”

He knows that since 2013 he hasn’t been the pitcher he was from 2001-2012. And he’s okay with it. Ever onward and upward. He nailed two more strikeouts before his Monday night was done, including Murphy the second time, yielded to the bullpen with two on and one out in the sixth.

But he couldn’t out-pitch Zack Greinke (strikeout victim number 3,001 if you’re scoring at home, by the way) and could only watch as his Yankees couldn’t overcome what finished as a 3-1 Diamondbacks win. Other than the Yankee loss, Sabathia has only one regret about the evening.

“When I actually got that [milestone strikeout], I didn’t want it to be Murph,” he said. “Me and him are really close, I’ve been knowing him his whole career.”

As much as he thought about it coming out of spring training, getting there was something else entirely. “That’s a hard one to grasp,’’ he said at a postgame press conference with his wife and children at his side. “There’ve been some great pitchers who played in this game, but being the third lefty is just incredible.”

When all else is done and said, Sabathia’s endurance could be called likewise.