NEW YORK -- As CC Sabathia accepts the reality that he has thrown the final pitch of a 19-year career in the Major Leagues, the left-hander is proud of the legacies that he has cemented, universally regarded as a terrific teammate and as a workhorse who never shied away from taking the ball.
His pitching arm in a sling, Sabathia chuckled frequently on Friday afternoon as he recounted the sequence of events that resulted in a left shoulder subluxation during the Yankees’ 8-3 loss to the Astros on Thursday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, his battered body giving out for the last time.
“I think it's just kind of fitting,” Sabathia said. “I threw until I couldn't anymore.”
The 39-year-old announced this spring that it would be his last season, his right knee having screamed with each pitch for several years. Sabathia had learned how to work with a bulky brace on that knee, and the onetime fireballer retooled his arsenal to cope with a dip in velocity. He never expected that his shoulder would be the final issue.
“It’s kind of a perfect, in a way,” manager Aaron Boone said. “This person that we all revere so much left it all out there. He gave us everything he had. He left it all out on the mound. Even though it's sad to see him walking out, there's something kind of awesome about it in a weird way. I know he'll be in a good place, knowing he gave everything he had.”
With the Yankees trailing by three runs in the eighth inning, Sabathia began to toss in the bullpen. Both men that Adam Ottavino faced reached base, prompting Boone to summon Sabathia, who had retired the only batter he faced -- Michael Brantley -- in the Yanks’ Game 2 loss at Houston.
“This was the best way for it to end for me, because of the way I've been feeling,” Sabathia said, recounting a conversation he had with his wife, Amber. “I’ve been loving the bullpen, jogging out, feeling pretty good. I feel like about July of next year, I’d have been like, ‘I think I can pitch.’”
“If he wanted to stay as a left-handed reliever,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said, “teams would line up to let him keep pitching.”
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In Game 4, Yordan Alvarez reached on a Gleyber Torres error that permitted Houston’s seventh run to score, and Sabathia got Carlos Correa to line out before hitting Robinson Chirinos with a pitch. Aledmys Díaz came off the bench to pinch-hit, and Sabathia felt his shoulder pop on his final pitch to Díaz, which resulted in a flyout to right fielder Aaron Judge.
“When I released the ball, my shoulder kind of went with it,” Sabathia said.
Despite the discomfort, Sabathia threw three more pitches to George Springer -- a 91.2 mph cutter for a called strike, then an 80.4 mph slider and an 88.6 mph cutter, both of which missed the strike zone.
Boone and head athletic trainer Steve Donohue visited Sabathia, and the hurler’s 6-foot-6 frame pounded the mound one last time for a practice pitch before he departed, tears in his eyes.
“It felt terrible,” Sabathia said. “I just was hoping Springer swung early, and once I realized this was going to be a long at-bat, Stevie came out and we kind of realized that I wasn't going to be able to do it. When I was throwing those pitches to Springer, I couldn't even look up to see where I was throwing the ball.”
The crowd serenaded Sabathia with a standing ovation and chants of “CC! CC!” Though Sabathia did not acknowledge them, at one point covering his face with his glove, he said a day later that he appreciated the outpouring of affection.
“That’s what got me more emotional than the actual injury, just hearing the fans and the way that they were cheering me,” Sabathia said. “It makes me feel like I made the right choice [as a free agent] 11 years ago. I love these fans. I love this organization. It was just awesome to hear that and get that on the way out.”
Right-hander Ben Heller replaced Sabathia on the ALCS roster; MLB rules dictate that an injured pitcher can only be replaced with another pitcher. The move leaves Sabathia ineligible for the World Series, should the Yankees rally from their 3-1 deficit to win the ALCS.
“That man gave his all,” said Judge. “They had to rip the ball out of his hand and that jersey off. He got everything out of that arm. That’s a warrior right there. That’s why he’s been a leader for so many years and has so much respect throughout the game and in this stadium.”
A six-time All-Star who was the MVP of the 2009 ALCS, Sabathia will retire leading all active Major Leaguers in career wins (251), starts (560), strikeouts (3,093), innings pitched (3,577 1/3) and quality starts (319).
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Those numbers recount what Sabathia did between the white lines, but they do not encapsulate the work that was required; Sabathia said that late in his career, each trip to the mound was a process, ferrying him from the hot tub to the training room to the weight room.
“I would throw a 15-pitch bullpen and take me 2 1/2 hours to get out there. That's the part of it that sucks,” Sabathia said. “That's the part I used to laugh at Andy Pettitte about, and now I went through it. It’s rough, but it makes it all worth it when you can get out there.”
Sabathia plans to remain in the New York area; his popular “R2C2” podcast will continue, and it is likely that he will be offered a post-playing role with the Yanks. He will not miss those hours of preparation, but Sabathia said his favorite time was always 7 p.m. on a game day.
“That was the best part about it: 50,000 people in the Bronx and [stuff] don't start until I'm ready,” Sabathia said with a laugh.
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.