C.C. Sabathia spent the last few days communing with a baseball he kept in his locker, trying to coax it back to life after his disastrous start against the White Sox last Friday. The big left-hander was chasing a finesse pitcher’s holy grail: The perfect feel for the seams that would allow his cut-fastball to burrow in on right-handed hitters — the pitch that Sabathia says resurrected his career in 2014.
He was preparing for a crucial start on Wednesday: Not only was Sabathia on the doorstep of his 250th career win, the Yankees were poised to finish off a sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays, their division rivals. Virtually everyone in Yankee Stadium was pulling for Sabathia, the 38-year-old veteran, when he took the mound, but it didn’t take long to realize both Sabathia and his cutter would be able to cut the engines and coast to victory.
The Yankees’ offense burst out with a six-run first inning, paving the way to a 12-1 rout that gave them plenty of momentum going into an even bigger showdown with the Houston Astros this weekend.
Sabathia? He became the 14th pitcher in major league history to record 3,000 strikeouts and 250 wins — dual milestones that Manager Aaron Boone said “speak to his longevity and greatness.” When asked if Sabathia had climbed the last hurdle for Hall of Fame consideration, Boone barely drew a breath before answering.
“I think he’s a lock,” the manager said.
Sabathia was typically gracious in accepting the praise, calling it a “blessing” to be in the same company of stars like Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, who, among others, are “guys that I idolize,” he said.
But first things first: Entering Wednesday, Sabathia had been reeling from the effects of a six-run, 10-hit beat down inflicted by the White Sox in just four and two-thirds innings. The culprit was his disappearing cutter, so Sabathia spent days twirling the ball in his hand, positioning his thumb with just the right amount of pressure to create sufficient spin.
Sabathia rediscovered the grip before a bullpen session on Monday: When the ball started darting again, he knew his brief crisis would pass. Time and again against Tampa Bay, the cutter bent angrily across the corners of the plate — in toward righties, away from lefties. By the time he left the mound for good after six innings of work, Sabathia had struck out seven Rays and allowed only three hits.
The question is how often the Yankees can count on such brilliance from their oldest pitcher. General Manager Brian Cashman has openly acknowledged he has been shopping for another starter on the trade market, in part because of Sabathia’s inconsistency of late. It took Sabathia four attempts to make history: Before his victory Wednesday, Sabathia had posted an E.R.A. of nearly 7.00 in June.
Still, there are days like Wednesday when his knees stop hurting, the seams feel perfect in his hand and his delivery is a billboard of balance and athleticism. When all the moving parts are in sync, no Yankee pitcher controls opposing hitters’ bat speed as effectively as Sabathia.
And certainly, no one is more respected in the clubhouse.
“It’s how humble he is,” catcher Gary Sanchez said of Sabathia. “Any of us can go up to him and ask him a question. It’s an honor to be behind the plate and be involved with his history.”
The Yankees’ upbeat mood went beyond celebrating Sabathia, of course. They opened up a three-and-a-half-game lead on the second-place Rays, their largest margin of the season. And in doing so, the Yankees crushed Blake Snell, the American League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, in that explosive first-inning rally. Snell, a left-hander, retired only one of the seven batters he faced before being mercifully removed by Manager Kevin Cash with the Yankees already ahead by three runs, making this the shortest start of his career. The Rays were counting on their ace to slow the Yankees’ surge, but Snell’s 39-pitch flogging, which included surrendering a three-run homer to Sanchez, spoke to the talent gap between the respective rosters.
Boone said, “we wore down one of the best pitchers in the game. We put on a clinic of our guys controlling the zone.” And the Yankees piled on with a six-run seventh inning, capped by a grand slam from Gleyber Torres.
Even more troubling for the A.L. East is the news that Aaron Judge is expected to be activated from the injured list on Friday, just in time for the biggest series of the season thus far, against the Astros, who swept the Yankees in Houston in a three-game series in April.
“It’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere here,” said Luke Voit. “We’re really in a good spot right now.”
He added that the Yankees “have a little chip on our shoulders” after the April sweep. “But we feel pretty good about ourselves,” he said.
No one was boisterous enough to call it a do-or-die weekend in the Bronx, but Voit wasn’t wrong when he said, “This will be a measuring stick for us.” It’s probably no coincidence that it was Sabathia, the veteran leader almost certainly on his way to Cooperstown, who helped set the tone.