Say this much for CC Sabathia, he is not gently tiptoeing out of his long and accomplished major-league career. He is determined to leave the stage the way he left the game Tuesday night: full blast. He is not the shy retiring type.
This time, the blastee was Avisail Garcia of the Rays, who was called for a third strike on Sabathia’s final pitch of the game, the last out of the Tampa Bay sixth. Garcia griped about it, and the superimposed box on the TV screen, which simulates the strike zone, indicated that he had a legitimate beef.
Sabathia, who was about to be replaced by a reliever no matter what, injected himself into the situation.
“Honestly, I think it was a misunderstanding. I wasn’t talking to him. He looked up at me and said something and it was on,” the pitcher said, curiously echoing Garcia’s denial of saying anything to start a quarrel.
Anyway, at the moment, tempers flared, benches and bullpens emptied and Sabathia had to be restrained by Didi Gregorius.
“Ah, man, it felt like holding a bear right there,” the 6-3, 183-pound shortstop said of the 6-6, 300-pound lefthander. “It’s tough. I even got elbowed there a little bit. But I’m good.”
Two things came out of that episode: Gregorius is one strong dude (he emphatically demonstrated that again when he launched an eighth-inning grand slam into the right-centerfield bleachers), and Sabathia, almost 39 with an announced plan to quit after this season, still has fire in the belly.
The Rays sure remember the fireworks of last September, when Sabathia was ejected for hitting a batter after bad blood had been boiling between the teams. The Red Sox likely will not forget the incident in 2017 when the big guy yelled at them on the field for trying to take advantage of his bum knee.
If he is on your team, you call him spirited. If not, you call him a hothead. Either way, he definitely makes things interesting. The atmosphere at Yankee Stadium definitely grew hotter and louder after that contretemps with Garcia. Coincidence or not, within the hour, the Yankees had turned a 3-1 deficit into an 8-3 win.
Aaron Boone said the Yankees didn’t need any extra motivation, adding, “We’re always pretty lit.” But Gregorius summed up the mood of the players when he said, “It fired us up. You saw us all running in there. We wanted to be behind him and everything. After that, DJ [LeMahieu] hits the homer, we’re all pretty pumped.”
At this point, it is worth noting why Sabathia still is around. It was a little-known save that won’t be acknowledged on Mariano Rivera’s plaque in Cooperstown this weekend: Rivera saved Sabathia’s career.
So says Sabathia, adding that Andy Pettitte gets a share of the credit.
During a more subdued, sentimental moment — after securing his 250th win June 19 (also against Tampa Bay) — Sabathia called himself “blessed.”
“I’ve been able to play with some great players, and having some of those guys rub off on me,” he said at the time. “Just thinking about the second half of my career, learning the cutter and where that’s taken me. If I hadn’t learned that pitch in 2014, I’d probably be out of the game. To have those two help me and really tutor me means a lot.”
The cut fastball, or cutter, put Rivera on an express to the Hall of Fame, becoming the first ever to make it with a unanimous vote. The lessons he gave Sabathia still are reverberating in the Bronx and around the American League. Sabathia will have a special interest in the ceremony upstate Sunday, when it is shown on the clubhouse TVs and the massive screen above centerfield.
Someday, there will be discussions about whether the starter belongs in Cooperstown with Rivera. Given Sabathia’s 251 wins and 3,063 strikeouts (so far), you could make a good argument for him. And an argument might just be his career’s best epitaph.