Welcome to CC Sabathia Week. We are using this week – the last home stand of the 2019 season –to honor CC Sabathia. Each day, we have a post about everyone’s favorite big man and his career. Bobby wrote his HOF case yesterday, now here’s one of his moments of glory.
Every great MLB career has a peak. That time when a player is at the top of the profession, striking fear into the heart of opponents.
You can’t always identify the beginning and end of that peak, but for CC Sabathia, the endpoint is very clear; His peak ended with the 2012 ALDS.
In 2012, the Yankees were onto the last days of a near-dynasty, having won the World Series in 2009 and followed that by coming up short in subsequent postseasons.
Derek Jeter was 38. Alex Rodriguez was 36. The team had just two everyday position players under 30 (Robinson Cano and Russell Martin) and both of them were 29. Even the deadline acquisition to add a spark (Ichiro) was elderly in baseball terms.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff was solid, though cobbled together. Mariano Rivera lost most of the season to an ACL injury while Rafael Soriano and David Robertson stepped up. The rotation had the fine collection of Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
Oh, and Sabathia.
We didn’t know it yet, but this was the end of peak Sabathia, the southpaw who fronted a championship-caliber roster and sparked fear in opposing teams. By the time the postseason rolled around, he had 2,564 innings on his odometer, plus another 86 in postseason innings. This was the final time he’d be blowing fastballs by hitters, good for 7-9 innings seemingly on command.
While Kuroda slightly outpitched the big man in the regular season, the right-hander pitched the final game of the regular season to get the Yankees the division title. That made Sabathia the far and away best choice to start the ALDS against the Orioles.
In Game 1, CC delivered, as he so often did. The O’s touched him up for two runs in the third inning (Lew Ford and Nate McClouth getting the big hits!), but Sabathia didn’t allow more than those two runs.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ offense was sputtering. It would for the entire postseason, but we didn’t know that right then. They scored two batters in and added just one more run before Russell Martin led off a five-run ninth inning with a home run.
Therefore, Sabathia had to keep the score tied for five innings in pursuit of a victory. He left men on base in the fifth, sixth and eighth and came within one out of a complete game, pulled 120 pitches into another workhorse outing.
You probably remember the middle of that series with The Raul Ibanez Game sandwiched between a pair of Orioles victories. A condensed postseason schedule meant the Yankees had to play Game 3-5 of the ALDS on consecutive days at home and, if they won the series, roll right into the ALCS the next day.
But the ALCS would be moot unless Sabathia could bring forth one more gem. He didn’t have to go on short rest like in 2008 with Milwaukee or the 2009 postseason. However, the Orioles had beaten him twice in the regular season and had played the Yankees to a draw in that close series.
Sabathia answered the call.
He allowed just two baserunners over the first seven innings, allowing the Yankees’ anemic offense to score first, second and third. There was a certain intensity to the left-hander, a feeling that he was determined through strength, skill and will-power to push the Yankees one round farther.
His will was tested in the eighth inning. Baltimore pushed across the run and had the bases loaded with one out for Nate McLouth and J.J. Hardy to tie or take the lead for the O’s. CC stopped them dead in their tracks with a strikeout and weakly hit grounder to Jeter.
In the ninth, he’d sit the O’s down in order and the celebration was on.
At the time, it seemed like the Yankees might have escaped a tough test and could move on to face a beatable Tigers team. Instead, the Bombers didn’t live up to their nickname with just six runs in the ALCS.
Jeter went down with injury and that was symbolic end of an era in its own right. Sabathia would have his own end to his peak with Game 4 of the ALCS. Media and fans had called for CC to throw on short rest in Game 3 despite him tossing 121 pitches to outlast the Orioles. The Yankees resisted that call, but normal rest wasn’t enough. He got 11 outs, gave up 11 hits and the Yankees watched Detroit celebrate an AL pennant at Comerica Park.
After the season, Sabathia had surgery on his elbow to remove a bone spur. He’d be fine for Spring Training and was on the mound for Opening Day. But his performance didn’t return, not until he became a finesse pitcher two years later. In between, he’d had knee problems and issues with alcohol. He became a changed pitcher and person, trying to maximize his final few years on the mound.
Though he regained a semblance of success towards the end of his career, the end of the fearsome, no-doubt Hall-of-Fame pitcher CC Sabathia came on October 7 and 12, 2012 against Baltimore. It was a dang near perfect end to a chapter.