BALTIMORE – He ran out of oil, pint for pint, pitch for pitch, and his right knee shouted at him every time he fell for it. All 6-foot, 6-inch and 300-pound CC Sabathia crunched on the leg, knee, a sharp pain that started with his first strike of the night and stopped for all 87 who followed.
"It makes it difficult to land," Sabathia would later say. "It's a stinging pain that pervades me every time it makes it difficult to finish pitches."
What he wanted tonight was to finish five innings, which would not be easy, for Sabathia this is Job not easy, no more, the boasting that was once paired with the game's most intimidating left arm was replaced by a determination that inspired his teammates and a vulnerability that earned him the eternal affection of Yankees fans.
He needed another inning to win Career Number 249 and the other boys in the team had done their work, Gleyber Torres had beaten two more homeruns, his fourth two-homer game of the year, against that punching bag Orioles his daily life, one that looked from the beginning as if he was ascending to Antietam.
The leads had been 5-0 and 6-1
It was important for him to play the ball every fifth day this season when injuries have tried to kill the Yankees. Luis Severino is still weeks, maybe months away. James Paxton missed a few starts. Sabathia knew he wanted to at least ring the bell until Paxton could return to rotation.
"We had so many injuries," he said. "Everyone had to do what he could to make up for that and make our contribution."
Sabathia's contribution was to come to five and get the number 249. He already knew that in the near future he would get a cortisone shot, that the fluid in his knee would have to be drained, that he would miss a few launches, maybe a few weeks. If you can see the end of your career every time you step up onto the pitcher's lane, every launch is a gift.
"I've dealt with it before," he said.
He has already dealt with so much. The knee has been a problem for several years. In the off-season he had to undergo a heart surgery, which in his way is more than a little ironic. Because in this phase of his career, he leads with his heart above all else. It is his heart that enables him to bring out Major League Hitters again and again.
It was his heart that brought him through four. And would somehow help him handle the fifth, even as his knee began to howl, even as the Orioles bats began to catch up with sliders and cutters, who were now flapping in without their usual bite. Richie Martin greeted him with his first home race of the fifth.
It was 7-3. The Orioles fans, who were under 17,849 in the Camden Yards, were silent all night, shaking the sleep from their eyes. Hander Alberto had solid contact, but his line drive died in Clint Frazier's glove in the right field. Two more outs.
Jonathan Villar drilled one on the left field line for a double, but third baseman DJ LeMahieu stepped in front of a seed of Trey Mancini. One to go out. One in 249 and a draw with Vic (the Delaware peach) Willis in 48th place, two wins behind Bob Gibson at # 251.
Renato Nunez pushed one over the wall, over the growing roar, to the marrow. Still one to do, and now it was 7-5. Now a laugh had turned into a baseball game again. The Yankees Bullpen were buzzing, but Aaron Boone stayed where he was. Pedro Severino doubled to the left. Now the binding run was on the plate. No. 249 was in danger. Boone stayed seated.
"You could see he lost command," Boone said.
Joey Rickard singled. It would be 7-6. Severino chugged third. Somehow, Brett Gardner uncorked a perfect litter, a smidge in the third baseline. Sanchez caught the ball, blocking the plate – a bit too good, the Orioles thought, though their repeat challenge was denied. Severino was out. CC was too.
He limped slowly down the steps of the dugout into the clubhouse. He had just enough to get on the tape. It ended 7-5. Sabathia had his third win of the year. He tied the Delaware Peach. Gibson will be next when the knee allows him to return.
"You have to get the drug in there and make it work," he said on a night in which he did a little trick himself.