CC Sabathia’s career victory lap started Saturday without a decision, but it certainly was a triumph for the 38-year-old lefthander in his 19th and final major-league season.
Sabathia’s five scoreless innings of one-hit pitching was a throwback to his prime and perhaps a glimpse of how he may finish the year.
Sabathia’s resume may just need some finishing touches to strengthen his credentials for eventual election to the Hall of Fame. He is 246-153 and ranks 17th on the all-time list with 2,989 strikeouts, including three against the White Sox in the Yankees’ 4-0 victory at the Stadium.
The season will not be a sentimental journey for Sabathia. “I don't think so,’’ he said. “Maybe at the end of the year, but while I’m in it, we’re trying to win a championship, and that’s all I can really focus on.’’
Hall of Fame-bound Derek Jeter said about the same in his final season, and Sabathia inherited Jeter’s locker, located in the back of the clubhouse. It’s a highly revered piece of real estate and fitting for one of only two remaining players from the 2009 world champion Yankees (Brett Gardner is the other).
Sabathia’s delayed start to the season was necessitated as he rehabbed from cardiac surgery in December. He admitted to first-game jitters. “It's just the nerves, just being back out there,’’ he said, “Thinking from where I came from in December and actually being back out on the mound, it’s cool...I knew I would get back out there; I didn't know how long it would take. Obviously, this was a lot quicker than I think anybody anticipated.’’
He found himself in a duel with former Yankee and still good friend Ivan Nova. Sabathia, utilizing a superb cutter, allowed only a third-inning single by Jose Rondon -- Chicago's only hit of the game -- in his 62-pitch effort. He wanted to continue into the sixth, but Aaron Boone said no.
“He fought me a little bit,’’ Boone said, “but I knew I was only going probably eight or 10 more pitches, and could I really get him through that next inning? I really didn't think so. And then I was like 'five shutout right now' and we felt really good about Domingo [German] coming in that slot behind him.’’
Nova left the scoreless game after yielding a leadoff single in the seventh to Gleyber Torres, and that baserunner wound up tagging him with the loss. The Yankees loaded the bases as Greg Bird's potential double-play ball was misplayed for an error and Clint Frazier singled. Pinch hitter Luke Voit lined a soft broken-bat single for the first run, Kyle Higashioka made it 2-0 with a sacrifice fly and Tyler Wade drove in the third run by pushing a safety-squeeze bunt toward third.
In the eighth, Aaron Judge hit his fourth home run, lofting a drive into the front row in rightfield. He was more interested in talking about Sabathia’s return.
“Having him back in here, having his presence, his laugh, everything about him, all around, he’s one the best teammates I’ve ever had,’’ Judge said. “He’s such a competitor on the mound. Knowing every five days we're going to have that guy go out there and beat his butt off for five, six, seven innings, no matter how long, it’s something to look forward to.’’
After a bad week for the Yankees, Sabathia provided some much-needed relief. So did the embattled bullpen, as German, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman combined for four perfect innings. The White Sox managed only two baserunners, one on an error by Wade.
But it was Sabathia's day. ”It means a lot to that room that he came back,’’ Boone said. “Long before I got back here, he’s always been that guy. That line you need, that big outing coming off a loss, he seems to always deliver in those moments. For him, in his first start of the season, in his final year, to come out and really just have the emotional command as well to just really lock in and continue to execute pitches, it was a lot of fun to watch him be so efficient.’’