NEW YORK -- CC Sabathia says that he returned for one final big league season so he could appear in another World Series, not to chase round numbers. Yet as the veteran left-hander draws nearer to the 3,000-strikeout mark, the historic milestone has been occupying his thoughts with growing intensity.
During the third inning on Friday evening, Sabathia said that he stalked around the mound at Yankee Stadium, peering at his growing K total on the scoreboard. Then it was back to business, as Sabathia’s five solid innings generated five strikeouts and career victory No. 247, helping the Yankees to a 6-2 victory over the Royals.
“I think it'll be pretty cool,” Sabathia said. “It'll definitely be a relief so I can just go out and worry about the season, and play and try to win a championship. That's all I'm really concerned about. With it being so close, it's hard for it not to be right there in your head.”
With 2,994 strikeouts, Sabathia’s next start could see him become the 17th pitcher to reach the 3,000 plateau. He trails John Smoltz (3,084) by 90 strikeouts, and Sabathia's current figure ranks fifth in American League history (first among left-handers).
Though the 38-year-old Sabathia has never been one to study the back of his baseball card, he acknowledged that the strikeout tally began to fill his mind during Spring Training. Five years down the line, manager Aaron Boone believes that the rest of the sport will be offering Sabathia's long and meritorious career a deserved place in the sun.
"He's going to be a Hall of Famer," Boone said. "[He had] periods of his career where he was dominant, where he's that Cy Young-caliber ace pitcher. Now, later in his career, he was really able to figure out a way to reinvent himself. The cutter became a big pitch for him these last few years."
Borrowed from Andy Pettitte's tool kit, that pitch proved to be largely unreliable on Friday, sailing up and away from its intended location. Huddling with catcher Kyle Higashioka, Sabathia still served as the stopper, leading the Yanks back from a disappointing loss in Thursday's series opener.
"I know deep down inside, those individual accomplishments don't mean that much to him," said Brett Gardner, who slugged a two-run homer in the third inning. "He's here because he wants to win, and not just individual wins either -- he wants the team to win. He played a big part in that tonight."
New York posted its third victory in four games as Sabathia held Kansas City to an unearned run and three hits. Mike Tauchman also hit his second Major League homer behind Sabathia, who walked four in an 86-pitch effort.
"When we really, really needed it, he made some great pitches," Higashioka said.
The last time that the Yankees saw Junis, he uncorked a fastball that fractured Aaron Judge's left wrist, costing the slugger 7 1/2 weeks of last summer.
There were no such moments on Friday, though Gardner was hit by a pitch that grazed his shoe, and the Yankees pasted Junis for five runs (four earned) in 5 1/3 innings. DJ LeMahieu lined out hard for a sacrifice fly in the sixth, with runs later scoring on a passed ball and an error.
Offering Judge a half-day as the Yankees’ designated hitter, Clint Frazier uncorked a strong throw for an outfield assist in the third inning, cutting down Martin Maldonado attempting to score on a Whit Merrifield flyout.
Sabathia seemed to be out of the inning when Billy Hamilton hit a weak grounder to first base, but Luke Voit bobbled the ball for an error and Adalberto Mondesi followed with a run-scoring single for the unearned run that appeared on Sabathia's ledger.
Hunter Dozier and Alex Gordon knocked back-to-back doubles off Luis Cessa in the sixth to account for the Royals’ other run. By that time, Sabathia was in the clubhouse, cooling off and turning his attention to an upcoming start against the Angels.
"He's the same guy every day; [he] has been for the last 10 or 11 years," Gardner said. "It doesn't matter if it's the day he's pitching or the other four or five days a week. He is a great teammate and is a great competitor. I think he sets a great example for all the young guys that we have in the room."
Sabathia has watched teammates like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez chase milestones in pinstripes, witnessing first-hand the anxiety they can produce and the elation when they are reached. He'll surely have that feeling once again next week when he plucks the ball from the mound at Angel Stadium.
"It's cool, but I'm right in the middle of it," Sabathia said. "Ask me after the World Series, you know? It's not for me to think about my place in history. I just go out and play. That's for everybody else to determine."