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As CC Sabathia surpasses 3,000 Ks, an appreciation of the Big Man

The New York Yankees signed CC Sabathia to his 7-year, $161 million deal in December of 2008. It was a truly incredible moment to be a fan of the Bombers. The Yankees always could hit, led by Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and the rest. They could always finish games, thanks to the consistently mesmerizing Mariano Rivera. But it sure felt like for so long they lacked that force at the top of the rotation, as Mike Mussina declined and Andy Pettitte settled into a reliable mid-rotation stalwart. Chien-Ming Wang had a moment, yes, but it was fleeting.

But CC Sabathia? Oh. CC Sabathia was the man. After winning a Cy Young in 2007 for the Cleveland Indians, the team he debuted with at the ripe young age of 19, Sabathia was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and carried them to the playoffs across his strong, wide shoulders. Sabathia threw 130 innings for the Brew Crew with an ERA+ of 255 with a sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio north of 5.

He dominated.

And now he was a Yankee, the clear prize of a loaded free agent winter — you’ll remember, won’t you, that the Yankees also brought in A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira — and precisely what the team needed. Speaking purely as a fan, Sabathia bred confidence unlike anything the Yankees had since, oh, 2003 maybe? He was an unquestioned ace. One can argue whether he was the undisputed best pitcher in the league at that moment — Roy Halladay demands your attention — but he was in that select group, a dependable, dominating hurler. That’s Valyrian-steel rare, kiddos, and the Yankees paid a hefty price.

He did not disappoint. Sabathia’s 2009 season was marvelous. He threw 230 innings, put up a 137 ERA+ and a 2.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As great as that was — and oh, was it ever great knowing CC Sabathia was throwing every fifth game — the big lefty was signed for the postseason, and he didn’t disappoint. Sabathia took down the Minnesota Twins in Game 1 of the ALDS (6 and 1/3 IP, 1 ER, 8 K) and then absolutely dismantled the Los Angeles Angels in the ALCS, throwing 16 innings, allowing two runs and striking out 12. He rightfully won the ALCS MVP. The Angels had been a consistent postseason bogeyman for the Yankees.

In Game 1 of the World Series, Cliff Lee (at the peak of his powers, and a frequent Yankee nemesis) outdueled his taller lefty counterpart, but Sabathia was still good: 7 IP, 2 ER. And in Game 4, Sabathia threw 6 and 2/3 innings and allowed 3 runs on the road against a formidable Phillies lineup. Two games later, Pettitte and Rivera closed the door and the Yankees claimed their 27th World Championship.

Sabathia was excellent in 2010 (237 IP, 136 ERA+) and 2011 (237 IP, 143 ERA+). The Yanks fell in the 2010 ALCS to the Texas Rangers and in the 2011 ALDS to the Detroit Tigers. And, no, Sabathia wasn’t great in either postseason, but he’d thrown a ton of innings and all around him, the empire was starting to crumble. Jeter, Rodriguez and the other aging hitters were slowing down, thankfully mitigated somewhat by Robinson Canó’s emergence as a superstar.

As it turns out, 2012 would be the last gasp, but it brought us my favorite moment from Sabathia. The Yankees crawled to the postseason and were met by a frisky Baltimore Orioles team in the ALDS. Sabathia was masterful in Game 1, recording 26 outs and allowing only two runs on 120 pitches. Alas, it took heroics from a washed-up Raúl Ibañez to keep the Yankees from facing elimination in Game 4, a game they ultimately lost in 13 innings, setting up a do-or-die Game 5.

Speaking purely as a fan, this was Sabathia’s finest hour as a Yankee. The team was done and everyone knew it, even if we didn’t want to believe it. Rodriguez was a shell of himself, tainted by scandal and hampered by a ruined hip. Jeter, the erstwhile captain, would literally break in the upcoming ALCS. Other than Rafael Soriano (remember, Rivera tore his ACL earlier that season), Cano, Nick Swisher and Hiroki Kuroda, the team was short on runway. Everything ends.

Ah, but what do we say to death? Not today. Sabathia took the ball in Game 5  knowing his offense probably wouldn’t do much and with no Rivera behind him to firmly shut the door. The offense actually managed three runs and the Orioles were held scoreless until the top of the eighth; but then Matt Wieters singled, Manny Machado walked and Mark Reynolds struck out (no, really). Finally, Lew Ford drew first blood on a single.

The Yankees needed four more outs. With Machado on second and Ford on first, Sabathia allowed an infield single to Robert Andino. All those pitches, all those long seasons. Was he worn out, too? Was Sabathia about to fall apart?

Joe Girardi could have turned to the bullpen for Andino, and perhaps with Rivera healthy, he would have. As good as Soriano was, no one inspired the same confidence as Mo, and so Girardi stayed with his ace. Bases loaded. Sabathia at 103 pitches. Nate McLouth stepped to the plate, and while he wasn’t exactly Frank Robinson, he had hit fairly well as an Oriole in 2012. He wasn’t a gimme.

No matter. Sabathia went slider, fastball, slider and slider to strike McLouth out, then hung a slider to JJ Hardy who could only ground it to Jeter to end the threat. The Orioles would go out gently in the ninth. The Big Man recorded each and every out, sprayed four hits, allowed two walks and punched out nine on 121 pitches.

For a myriad of reasons, he wouldn’t pitch this well in the postseason again for several years. Part of that was the Yankees falling apart; part of that was Sabathia struggling with his own demons. Famously, Sabathia took control of the latter by entering rehab in 2015, just as a sorta-rejuvenated Yankees team clawed its way into the Wild Card.

In retrospect, 2016 was a critical year for Sabathia and the Yankees. Gary Sanchez broke out and bashed a ton of homers, and even despite selling off a healthy amount of talent at the trade deadline, the Bombers flirted with the postseason into September. Sabathia, well past his days as an ace, threw 179.2 innings at a 110 ERA+ clip, moving into his new Andy Pettitte in 2009 role, a solid back-of-the-rotation stalwart.

He’s been good since, throwing around 150 innings, not allowing too many runs in 2017 and 2018. He works his cutter and two-seamer everywhere, producing weak contact and keeping the Yankees in games. He’s not a stopper anymore; at least not the kind that goes deep into games. But he is a leader, the elder sheriff who’s won his fair share of duels and can still ride up at high noon if the moment demands it.

And as he marches through his final summer in baseball, what a joy it has been to follow his career. CC Sabathia is a Hall of Famer, and will presumably go into Cooperstown as a Yankee. The only pitchers with more than 3,000 strikeouts not in the Hall are Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, both of whom should be. Sabathia will go in, and it’ll be well earned.

Maybe, just maybe, the old warhorse will go out with another championship.

Adam Adkins also writes about baseball at AdkinsOnSports.com. His most recent Ode to a Pitcher breakdown covered Luis Castillo.