After CC Sabathia had induced the popup, as he turned and located the ball, he grimaced in pain and his left shoulder drooped. As soon as he had released the pitch a cutter to the Houston Astros’ Aledmys Diaz, Sabathia had his shoulder go with it.
But this was the eighth inning in Game 4 of the ALCS, and the New York Yankees were trailing. Sabathia shook his shoulder, took the mound and threw three pitches to George Springer. Sabathia later acknowledged he couldn’t even look up to see where he was throwing the ball. He was just “letting it go and whatever happened, happened.”
After the third pitch, an 89-mph cutter, Sabathia adjusted his shoulder again, more subtly this time, but now the Yankees’ trainer came running onto the field, followed by manager Aaron Boone. The trainer grabbed Sabathia around the waist and they spoke for a few moments. Sabathia stretched his left arm and asked if he could try throwing a warm-up pitch, and they obliged. As Sabathia walked back to the mound, fans rose to their feet, sensing the gravity of the moment.
Sabathia threw one pitch, low and outside, and immediately walked off the field, the trainer’s arm wrapped around his waist. Back in February, Sabathia had announced he’d retire after the season, and now the end had arrived. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and some Astros, including Springer and Gerrit Cole, joined in.
“[CC] and I even kind of laughed about it a little bit, like kind of in a weird way, kind of a perfect way to go out,” Boone said. “He’s been the ultimate teammate, competitor, gamer. Left everything on the field, left everything he had on the mound.”
Sabathia’s injury — a partial dislocation of the shoulder joint — cast a pall over the Yankees, who lost Game 4 and fell behind in the series, 3-1. But he may serve as inspiration now. During Friday’s Game 5, which the Yankees won 4-1, they showed Sabathia on the jumbotron in the sixth inning, along with a message thanking him, and he received loud cheers.
Earlier that afternoon, Sabathia met with reporters at Yankee Stadium, his left arm in a sling, to discuss the way he went out and look back on his illustrious career. He’d been inundated with texts and notes from well-wishers, including a tearful message on MLB Network from his former manager Joe Girardi.
“Makes you super emotional,” Sabathia said. “So many texts, tweets, so many things.”
Sabathia, 39, leaves as one of the best pitchers of his generation and a potential Hall of Famer. He finishes with 251 wins, a .609 winning percentage, 3,093 strikeouts, and a 3.74 ERA. He won a Cy Young Award, made six All-Star appearances and won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees. His postseason record was 10-7 with a 4.28 ERA in 130-1/3 innings.
Beyond the numbers, Sabathia also will be remembered as a workhorse ace, a pitcher who took the ball every five days and often carried his team. He pitched at least 200 innings in a season eight times, and had five more seasons in which he threw at least 180 innings.
By the end, all of those innings had taken their toll. Sabathia pitched 107-1/3 innings this year due in large part to an arthritic right knee. In September, the Yankees moved him to the bullpen to reduce his workload even more. Every time Sabathia took the mound, he needed two and a half hours of prep time, between his hot tub, training room and weight room routines.
“That’s the part of it that sucks,” Sabathia said.
The Yankees kept him around, in part, it seemed, because of his leadership skills. He was one of few people who could bring the whole team together, one of the last links to the old guard, to the teams of Jeter, Pettitte and Posada. After Thursday’s game, the next generation of Yankees grew emotional discussing Sabathia’s injury, as if it were the end of an era.
That night, Sabathia had a conversation with his wife, Amber. He told her that going out like this was maybe for the best. He’d been enjoying his new assignment, coming out of the bullpen, and he’d been feeling pretty good. Maybe he’d have gotten the itch to come back next season. Getting hurt may have saved him from himself.
“It’s kind of fitting,” Sabathia said. “I threw until I couldn’t anymore.”