Sabathia Comes Up Large Again
Saturday, August 9, 2008
MILWAUKEE, Aug. 8 -- Wind-up always slow, path always direct, CC Sabathia came right at the Washington Nationals on Friday night -- a tornado tearing down a country road -- and after everything was calm again, the team that once stood in Sabathia's way could only whisper about what happened. For nine innings, Sabathia rolled. The Nationals had five hits and no chance. They were witnesses, simply, to the National League's newest, roundest force.
Lessons? None. "Hopefully," Ryan Zimmerman said, "you just don't face him again."
Friday night at Miller Park belonged to Sabathia, a Brewer for just a month, and already a phenomenon. More a spectacle than a pitcher, the giant left-hander blitzed through the Washington lineup, leading to a 5-0 defeat of the Nationals. Sabathia entered Miller Park to a standing ovation, and nine innings later, he departed to a standing ovation. In between, the Nationals saw enough -- a better-than-expected curveball, a controlling slider, a fastball that stayed at 95 into the ninth inning -- that some called it the best pitching performance of the year.
"First place," Cristian Guzmán said, when asked where Sabathia ranked.
"I mean, every pitch I saw today was a strike," Willie Harris said. "He didn't throw me one ball. I didn't see one ball today. Every pitch I saw was a strike."
When Harris arrived at the team hotel in Milwaukee on Thursday night, he found a comfortable chair, sat back, and visualized the next day's pitcher; Sabathia just happened to have the largeness to fill an imagination. At 6 feet 7 and 290 pounds, he's the size and shape of a monster in your childhood bedroom. He wears his uniform baggy, like a costume. He tilts his hat just off-center.
"I was just thinking about him," Harris would later say. "Just late last night in my room. Just thinking about what I wanted to do with him."
Or better, what Sabathia would let him get away with. Baseball's best pitchers all do one thing: They dictate. In the Washington clubhouse Friday afternoon, several admitted that Sabathia's best stuff would trump almost any counter-effort.
"We've just gotta hope he doesn't have it," hitting coach Lenny Harris said.
Even when Willie Harris thought about Sabathia in his room, he'd resigned himself to an approach based as much on hoping as hitting. His game plan? Concede the inner part of the plate. Wait on something outside. Maybe, if Sabathia threw the exact pitch Harris expected, he could poke out a hit.
"He can have this half," Harris said, drawing a line near his chest. "If he throws me three in there, I'm not going to hit it anyway. Listen, you can't prepare. I mean, you can go up there with a plan, go up there with an idea of what you want. But if he's throwing 96 where he wants to, you're done.
"Ain't nothing you can do. He has that? No chance. For nobody. If he's on " -- and here, Harris went silent, and mimed the removal of his cap.
As always with Sabathia, the real show met, or even surpassed, expectations. For 2 hours 25 minutes, Sabathia dominated the Washington lineup, dead-ending the hot streak of a team that entered with six wins in seven games.
Sabathia's control appeared from the minute he strode to the mound, a Miller Crowd sellout roaring. Two of the first three Nationals struck out. Two of the first five made outs trying to bunt for hits. The game, for Milwaukee, developed the firmest kind of architecture: The Brewers scored in each of the first three innings off Collin Balester; then, in turn, Sabathia walked back to the mound and recorded the next three outs, pushing that much closer to inevitability.
Nothing was going to push Sabathia from the mound on this night. He threw 103 pitches -- 77 of them strikes. He walked just one. Even in the ninth, nobody in the Milwaukee bullpen warmed up. Maybe, just maybe, Arizona's Brandon Webb (nine innings, no runs, 113 pitches on May 31) handled Washington this season with more dominance. But nobody's handled Washington with greater gusto.
When Guzmán led off the fourth with a single, Sabathia bulldozed through the inning thanks to an Austin Kearns 6-4-3 double play. When the Nationals finally pushed a runner to second base in the fifth, Sabathia hammered Harris with two called strikes, then used an inside pitch to secure a weak grounder to second.
Like that, the phenomenon continued. When Milwaukee traded for Sabathia on July 7, a team hoping for the playoffs developed into one expecting the playoffs. In seven starts since, Sabathia, the 2007 American League Cy Young Award winner, has validated his tall tale-level importance. He has a 6-0 record in seven starts with the Brewers. He's pitched four complete games, exceeding by two Washington's total since 2007.
"There's a reason why they got him," Manager Manny Acta said. "This guy can pitch."