As the 2019 season wound down and C.C. Sabathia approached the finish line of a 19-year career, he often imagined what his final appearance in Yankee Stadium would look and sound like: a long, loving ovation from the crowd as he strode off the mound.
It would be a proper show of appreciation not just for Sabathia’s 251 career wins and 3,000-plus strikeouts, but for the good will he has generated throughout the big leagues. Loved by his teammates and admired by his opponents, Sabathia indeed got that ovation on Thursday night in the Bronx, even from the Houston Astros in the visitors’ dugout — but not for the reasons he had hoped. Nothing, in fact, went according to plan.
Sabathia entered in the eighth inning, relieving Adam Ottavino as the Yankees were being throttled in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. After throwing 16 pitches, Sabathia was done in by the 17th, wincing in pain as he walked, dazed, in a circle behind the rubber. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone and the trainer Steve Donohue rushed to the mound, as did the Yankees infielders. Sabathia tried one more practice pitch before the verdict was cemented: The beloved left-hander’s career had just abruptly ended.
On Friday, after their dreary 8-3 loss to the Astros, the Yankees announced that Sabathia had sustained a subluxation, or partial dislocation, of his left shoulder and would be replaced on the roster by the right-hander Ben Heller. But even before the move, Boone’s postgame prognosis had made the situation clear: “We’ve got to see more about it, but not good,” he said.
Sabathia did not speak to reporters after the game; he had left the stadium by the time reporters were allowed into the clubhouse. His teammates, however, were open about their feelings. One by one, they spoke of Sabathia’s courage in continuing to pitch in pain over the final weeks of the regular season. Even though he had struggled with chronic arthritis in his right knee, it was the left shoulder that proved to be the problem. Sabathia received a cortisone shot two weeks ago and was left off the roster during the Yankees’ division series against Minnesota.
Sabathia was added for the A.L.C.S., with Boone hoping to bolster the pitching staff to help hold down the Astros and their A.L.-leading offense. The plan was to use Sabathia as a one-out specialist against left-handed hitters who would be vulnerable to his cut fastball. But Boone was looking for more than just corner strikes from Sabathia: He was hoping the veteran’s leadership would make a difference in this high-pressured series.
His status as a clubhouse leader added to the difficulty of watching Sabathia struggle, and many of his teammates were emotional as they paid tribute to him.
“To see it firsthand, the stuff he goes through to be able to pitch to help us win a World Series, it’s heartbreaking,” the reliever Zack Britton said. “I know how much pain he was in, even coming in and talking to him just a second ago.”
Added D.J. LeMahieu: “You feel for C. This year in particular, he’s given everything he’s got. I know he pitched through a lot. It was tough to watch.”
Aaron Judge expressed the same sentiment, almost word for word, before emphasizing how much Sabathia would be missed in 2020; Sabathia has been with the Yankees since 2009, after starting his career with seven-plus seasons in Cleveland and a brief stint in Milwaukee. Although Judge, 27, has evolved into one of the faces of the team, he deferred to Sabathia, whom he called “a warrior” and “our leader.”
The storybook version of Sabathia’s closing act might have seen him catalyze a Yankees comeback against Houston, not unlike the injured Willis Reed hobbling onto the court moments before Game 7 of the 1970 N.B.A. finals, spurring the Knicks to a championship over the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Yankees’ reality on Thursday was much grimmer: They left the diamond just nine innings away from elimination by the Astros, hoping James Paxton could somehow match Justin Verlander in Game 5 to send the series back to Houston this weekend.
But even in that scenario, another monster roadblock awaits — Gerrit Cole, who would pitch Game 7, if necessary, on full rest. The task seemed so daunting that Boone felt it necessary to address his players after their miserable performance in Game 5. He told them to “flush it” — forget everything that had just happened — and focus solely on Verlander on Friday night.
Easier said than done. The Yankees committed four errors, stranded seven runners in scoring position and disappointed scores of hometown fans. By the eighth inning, there were large swaths of empty seats in the stadium.
Those who stayed got a chance to say goodbye to the pitcher who just might end up in Cooperstown. But it was a bittersweet farewell. Of all the ways Sabathia wanted to leave the game, surely this wasn’t one of them.