NEW YORK -- There was a moment earlier this year when CC Sabathia was asked how he had decided that 2019 would be his final Major League season. The veteran left-hander stared at his questioner, blinked and let out a boisterous laugh. Sabathia’s body has been insisting for years that it was time to go home, with only the possibility of a second World Series ring keeping him in a big league uniform.
Sabathia’s ideal conclusion would have included a parade through the Canyon of Heroes early next month, ending his time with the Yankees the same way that it began a decade ago. But as he departed the mound in the eighth inning of the Yanks' 8-3 loss to the Astros on Thursday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, it appeared that his actual ending would involve a much different scenario.
After countless trips to the trainers’ room to address a balky right knee that will eventually require replacement, it was Sabathia’s left shoulder that barked loudest on Thursday, jolting his 6-foot-6 frame after a 1-1 pitch to George Springer. Sabathia conferred with head athletic trainer Steve Donohue and threw one practice toss before walking off the mound, tears in his eyes.
“That man gave his all,” outfielder Aaron Judge said. “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. It was tough to see. That’s our leader. He left it all out there.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that Sabathia’s shoulder is “not good.” The club replaced him on the ALCS roster prior to Friday night’s Game 5 with right-hander Ben Heller. The move, which had to be a pitcher for a pitcher, leaves Sabathia ineligible for the World Series should the Yankees rally to win the ALCS.
What was announced as a Yankee Stadium crowd of 49,067 had thinned by the time Sabathia was summoned from the bullpen, but those who remained applauded his entrance, with chants of “CC!” ringing throughout the ballpark. He heard another ovation as he walked off the field, but the hurler did not acknowledge it, hiding his face with his glove as he approached the dugout steps.
“I feel for C,” said first baseman DJ LeMahieu. “From my perspective, this year in particular, he’s given everything he’s got. I know he’s pitched through a lot. It was tough to watch.”
Boone summoned Sabathia with runners at first and second and nobody out, hoping the former Cy Young Award winner could escape Adam Ottavino’s jam and hold the deficit at 6-3. With the infield playing in, it looked like Sabathia was on track, inducing a grounder to second base. But Gleyber Torres booted the ball, allowing Alex Bregman to score to push Houston’s lead to 7-3.
Sabathia retired Carlos Correa on a line drive to right field, then hit Robinson Chirinos with a pitch to load the bases. Pinch-hitter Aledmys Díaz flied out to Judge in right field, bringing Springer to the plate. Three pitches later, Sabathia was on his way to the clubhouse, his brilliant 19-year career potentially having reached its conclusion.
“He's a great person; a great player, obviously,” Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks said. “He's going to be a Hall of Famer. To see a guy like that go out like that is not the way you want to see it. He means a lot to this team, to this organization. For him to go out like that is not something you want.”
Television cameras spotted several of the Astros applauding Sabathia’s effort, including Springer and Gerrit Cole.
“CC, I have history with him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “I caught him in Spring Training and I faced him, one of the last standing guys I faced. I’ll officially be old when he and Fernando Rodney retire. I hate to see that for him, I hate to see that for the sport and we hope he’s OK. Our entire dugout was on the top step, paying our respects to him trying to gut it out.”
A six-time All-Star who was the MVP of the 2009 ALCS, Sabathia leads all active Major Leaguers in career wins (251), starts (560), strikeouts (3,093), innings pitched (3,577 1/3) and quality starts (319). Sabathia was 134-88 with a 3.81 ERA and 1,700 strikeouts in 307 games (306 starts) after joining the Yanks prior to the 2009 season.
“It’s frustrating. CC is one of the players that always wants to pitch,” said Torres. “He feels sore, but he wants to stay on the mound. It's so hard to see CC go like that. That will be motivation for us.”