By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Milwaukee's CC Sabathia, who will start Game 2 of the division series against Philadelphia on Thursday, is either the most unselfish pitcher in baseball or the most foolhardy.
And his Brewers, who have essentially rented him for half a season before he becomes a $140 million free agent, are either exploiting Sabathia or they're simply following his wishes.
As is often annoyingly the case, all of the above is true.
On Thursday, the Brew Crew, which lost Game 1 Wednesday, 3-1, to Cole Hamels and the Phillies, will send its 6-foot-7, 290-pound southpaw to the mound on just three days' rest for the fourth straight time. Even though he already led the majors in innings this season with 253, the most of his career. Even though, if the Brewers make the World Series, he might hit 300 innings.
Who was the last star pitcher to work on short rest so many times in a row? Nobody here can remember. Was it back when Milwaukee last made the playoffs, in '82, in another era? Quite likely. When did a player on the cusp of a gigantic payoff -- probably the biggest contract for a pitcher in history -- ever push himself to the fore, and perhaps jeopardize his future at its very peak, to chase an improbable, long-shot chase for a world title? Try never.
All the normal, sensible people in Sabathia's life, including his family and his agent, have tried to talk sense to him. He's not listening. "I think everybody who knows me and that's close to me knows how competitive I am," he said on Wednesday. "If I'm healthy enough and I feel fine enough to pitch, they're not going to tell me not to, because I'm not going to listen to it.
"We're going to end up in an argument."
The Brewers, who came to Sabathia to suggest the short-rest idea -- not the other way around -- certainly have their reasons for loving a beyond-the-call-of-duty pitcher.
Their other top starter, Ben Sheets, is hurt and out for this series. So, if this series goes five games, they can jam Sabathia into two starts against the powerful Phils. Also, CC seems to be thriving. In his past two starts, he has allowed one earned run on eight hits in 16 innings with three walks and 18 strikeouts. Is his workload actually making his superb control even sharper?
Still, the Brewers know the whole sport is watching with hard, narrowed eyes. Just because Sabathia is enormous doesn't mean his 28-year-old shoulder and elbow are indestructible.
"We know people will be after us and say it's unfair," Milwaukee General Manager Doug Melvin said. "CC had to look me in the eye and tell me he wanted to do this."
But Sabathia only said those words after Dale Sveum, still only in his 17th day as manager, called him into his office and asked if he'd do it. We've all been there: How'd you like to volunteer? Oh, that's fair. No pressure. Why not just say: You're big as a house; are you tough, too?
In his past 31 starts, Sabathia has a 1.88 ERA and a 17-7 record. Since coming to the Brewers in July, he's 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. He's carried them into October on his mammoth back, clinching the wild card on the last day of the regular season with a complete-game four-hitter.
Sabathia's agent, Greg Genske, even called the Brewers to . . . ummm . . . chat. Now, the convenient tale everybody agrees to tell is that CC is different, a throwback, just a glorious old-school ace. And that suits Sabathia fine.
When he was traded, Melvin asked how many days he'd need to report to his new team. Sabathia said, "I'll be there tomorrow. And I want to pitch."
So, the last day before the all-star break, Sabathia won. The first day after the All-Star Game? He started that, too: a four-hitter. Then, he hurled a four-hit shutout. Of his first six games as a Brewer, he won three, pitched three complete games and had a 1.00 ERA with 26 strikeouts.
Like most tales as compelling as this, there's a back story. Sabathia is not just competitive but proud. That pride was mocked last October when, after a Cy Young season, he got nervous and allowed 15 earned runs and 13 walks in 15 1/3 ugly postseason innings.
"I think you'll see a more calmer version of me," Sabathia said. "Last year I went into the playoffs thinking I had to throw no-hitters. That's why you saw me pressing a lot."
Sabathia claims he's not purging the past. He just loves the Brewers like family now. Milwaukee is nuts over the Crew in a way Cleveland wasn't over the Indians. So he wants to bring everybody in Wisconsin a beer and a world title. Even so, erasing last October must be on his mind.
"My wife and agent were talking to me the other day. And they're both fine with it," Sabathia said. "They know I would be honest. If I couldn't do it, I wouldn't do it.
"So I don't think of it as a sacrifice."
In his career, Sabathia has earned $34 million. Still, he may top the $137.5 million contract the Mets gave to Johan Santana last offseason. "Somebody said, 'If Santana had pitched as often for the Mets as CC did for you, they'd be the ones in the playoffs,' " said a member of the Brewers.
That's both probably truth and yet also utterly unfair. It is precisely because the Mets have such a huge investment in Santana that they'd never risk his future, and theirs, in such fashion. The Brewers have nothing to lose. They have almost no chance of re-signing Sabathia. And they know it.
So, it was easy for them to ask Sabathia to volunteer.
"We called him in the office and asked him," Sveum said. "He said it's funny you asked because I was about ready to come in your office and tell you that I'm ready to go on three days' rest.
"It's up to him. It's his career."
Hard to believe? Melvin told Sveum, "I believe you, but I need to hear it from him." Melvin did. He's still in shock.
"CC is the most unselfish athlete I've been associated with," Melvin said. "When you're in your free agent year and you're doing things for your club when you could be doing things for yourself . . ."
Baseball has its unspoken conventions. It's okay to ask a pitcher, even a star in his walk year, if he'll work on short rest -- once. It's his choice. Do you ask twice in a row? Almost never. Find one example. But a fourth time? Unheard of.
Now, the Phils, with a win in hand, have a kind of free shot at Sabathia. "Tomorrow, maybe we will get after big CC," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said.
Sveum demurred. "We're down one game with the best pitcher in baseball going tomorrow," he said. "We feel good about ourselves."
Sabathia should. The Brewers shouldn't.