NEW YORK — Two years ago in Toronto, CC Sabathia thought his career might be over. He felt significant pain in his knee, and was seriously contemplating retirement.
But those August 2017 fears were mitigated after tests miraculously came back clean, and Sabathia went on to become a hero in October — perhaps for the final time.
In a do-or-die Game 5 of the American League Division Series in Cleveland, the big lefty produced nine strikeouts in 4 2/3 gutsy innings against the Indians.
“It feels good. It feels right,” Sabathia said that night after beating his former team and pitching the New York Yankees into the American League Championship Series. He went on to throw six shutout innings in Game 3 against the Houston Astros before running out of gas in Game 7.
Still, it was an incredible run.
Now, Sabathia is in his final season, and — once again because of injury — he may have already thrown the final pitch of his career.
The 39-year-old was left off the team’s ALDS roster Thursday because of a shoulder issue. Yankees manager Aaron Boone had telegraphed as much Wednesday, when he was non-committal about Sabathia being part of the 25-man roster.
Even so, nothing felt good or right about it.
“It’s tough, obviously, being here and not being able to participate in the playoffs,” Sabathia said. “I didn’t want to put the team in jeopardy. I want the best opportunity for this team to win a championship. I feel like we have a good opportunity. I didn’t want to be selfish and go out there hurt and put the team in a bad spot.”
The Yankees had envisioned Sabathia in a bullpen role. Lefties had produced just a .198/.270/.451 slash line in 102 plate appearances against him in 2019. And they wanted him to get a pair of outings during the final week of the season in preparation.
Sabathia, though, was only able to make one appearance — pitching a 1-2-3 inning and striking out two on Sept. 24 in Tampa. His shoulder, which has been bothering him for a couple months, simply didn’t bounce back as necessary.
“He ended up getting a cortisone shot, was able to go out and throw a sim game Tuesday and, frankly, threw the ball pretty well,” Boone said, “but just not quite where it needs to be, to be in the kind of role we’re going to ask him to be in where he’s potentially getting up on the spot and then maybe having to get up later in the game.”
The Yankees will have to advance in order to give Sabathia another shot. He’s already had to endure an offseason heart procedure and multiple knee drains (as usual) in 2019 just to get this far.
“It’s tough to hear,” Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said. “But we’ve got a lot of baseball to play. Hopefully our road doesn’t end here in the DS. Hopefully, he gets a chance to pitch in the CS or the World Series.”
The Yankees signed Sabathia to a seven-year, $161 million deal before the 2009 season. In the first four seasons of the contract, he averaged an 18-7 record to go along with a 3.22 ERA over 226 innings — including three All-Star appearances and a World Series ring in his first year in pinstripes.
Adversity and struggles followed — alcohol rehabilitation, multiple knee surgeries, pain he’s recently described as between 8-10 on a scale of 1-10 and Sabathia needing to reinvent himself on the mound.
Yet he’s been able to persevere through it all, setting the tone with his competitive fire and serving as a valuable leader and mentor for many of his teammates. That role, at least, figures to remain the same from the dugout, where he can both provide advice and chirp at home-plate umpires over missed calls.
“It kind of defines our team, the grit and determination that CC shows,” Judge said.
A changing of the guard is about to occur. The Yankees didn’t overthink it, going with a rotation of James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino in Games 1-3. Boone plans to be aggressive with his bullpen as needed. A potential run at Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole this winter could hinge on the rotation’s successes or failures in the postseason.
Paxton will be making his playoff debut, and Judge referred to him as “the best left hander in the game.”
That label used to apply to Sabathia — especially when he singlehandedly carried the Milwaukee Brewers to the postseason in 2008.
But now, Sabathia needs his teammates to take care of business and perhaps give him one last chance on the mound in October, assuming he can physically recover and prove himself worthy of a roster spot in the next two rounds.
It could mean one final feel-good moment for CC Sabathia — a big-game pitcher who has produced so many feel-good moments for the Yankees and their fans over the last decade
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