C.C. Sabathia tried to remain stoic as the baseball world said its farewell. The scoreboard played one touching video after another on Sunday, from his past and present Yankees teammates, as well as rivals from other teams. Sabathia was alone at home plate, soaking up the love, until his mother, wife and children appeared on the gigantic screen reading letters of thanks to the man who proved he wasn’t afraid to cry.
More than once Sabathia wiped away his tears; who knew he was such a softy? But, no, the old war horse wasn’t embarrassed, not in what was probably the final home game of his career. And Sabathia wasn’t alone in his emotions, either. In the Yankees’ dugout, Aaron Judge was swallowing hard. Brett Gardner reached for sunglasses to hide his moistening eyes. And Aaron Boone, who is both Sabathia’s manager and friend, didn’t just weep, he nearly had to retreat into the tunnel to avoid making a scene.
“I was going to really lose it,” Boone said after the ceremony, which was only one of multiple story lines for the Yankees on Sunday. They flattened the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-3, kept pressure on the Houston Astros for the American League’s best home record, and watched Luis Severino fine-tune his arsenal in preparation for their division series, which begins in less than two weeks.
These are all critical elements in the Yankees’ pursuit of a championship. The machinery will ramp up in the final five games this week, all on the road, against the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. But there was still enough time to give Sabathia a proper send-off. Although he will remain on the active roster throughout October, his role will be limited to middle relief, if that.
Knowing the finish line is near, Sabathia was able to take an overhead view of a 19-year career that will almost certainly land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame, possibly on the first ballot. Sabathia had seen so many teammates age out and say goodbye during his summers in the Bronx — Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada — and admitted, at age 39 and after nearly 3,600 innings, he was ready to follow them into retirement.
“I won’t miss the competition, I’ll miss the guys,” Sabathia told reporters. “The way I pitch — emotionally — I’m exhausted. I never thought I’d end up playing this long. It turned out to be a blessing.”
The feeling goes both ways in the clubhouse, where Sabathia is easily one of the most popular Yankees. In fact, the pregame tribute was so moving, Boone said the Yankees were “inspired … they came out with good energy” on the way to an easy win over the Blue Jays.
There was no shortage of good news for the organization this weekend, despite pitcher Domingo German being placed on administrative leave under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy. M.L.B. has been investigating an incident involving German and could have a ruling about his suspension as soon as Monday. But just as German fades from the Yankees’ playoff plans, Severino is quickly emerging to take his place.
He allowed Toronto three hits in five shutout innings, striking out nine. With a fastball that topped out at 98.9 miles an hour and generated 12 swings and misses, the right-hander confidently said, “I’m 100 percent.” And Severino’s recovery from season-long shoulder and latissimus dorsi issues means more than just the return of his old velocity.
He is now using his changeup as often as the slider, including to right-handed hitters.
“The game is so much about numbers and statistics, which all say I pitch away to them,” Severino said, referring to right-handers. “So I’m throwing the changeup inside, give them something else to think about, which is going to help me a lot.”
Granted, Severino mowed down one of the American League’s weakest lineups; the Jays are last in batting average (.237). But the Yankees were less interested in Sunday’s particulars than whether he can be counted on in high-leverage situations in October. In fact, Boone may soon have a delightful problem on his hands, deciding whether Severino or the lately unhittable James Paxton should start Game 1 of the division series.
Paxton, a left-hander who did not allow an earned run over six innings in Saturday’s 7-2 win over Toronto, has not lost since July 26. He’s won his last 10 starts, thanks to a deadly combination of high-90s fastballs and a curveball so sharp it looks as if it has been caught in a wind shear.
Paxton said he now had “total faith” in that curveball and the way it increased the perceived velocity of his fastball. If the Yankees’ rotation is truly as strong at the top as it currently appears, the club’s farewell gift to Sabathia could end up topping the all-expenses-paid vacation to Japan for him and his family. A championship ring would be the best finishing touch of all.