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The Strike Zone

CC Sabathia's return to Milwaukee a not-so-happy one as Yanks fall to Brewers

(Jeffrey Phelps/AP) Sabathia left the game with one out in the sixth, after throwing 107 pitches and allowing four runs on eight hits. (Jeffrey Phelps/AP)

Yes, CC Sabathia spent just three months as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers back in 2008, but he remains as beloved in the City of Festivals (a real nickname; I looked it up) as anyone not named Yount, Molitor or Uecker.

Sabathia, then an impending free agent, was the Platonic ideal of a rent-a-player after he was acquired from the Indians in early July, even long before the key prospect Milwaukee gave up for him, Matt LaPorta, turned out to have skills best suited for the Mexican League. He pitched so well for the Brewers – 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and a by-modern-standards astonishing seven complete games – that he finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting even though he made just 17 starts in the league. With a nine-figure free agent contract on the line and with his agent protesting, he volunteered to make each of his final three starts on just three days rest. The Brewers needed every one of them. On the season’s last day, he pitched a complete game against the Cubs, and the Brewers’ 3-1 win would later that day prove to clinch them the Wild Card and a playoff berth for the first time in 26 years.

Those are the types of heroics that leads a club for which you played a total 17 games to hand out a bobblehead doll fashioned in your likeness, two years after you have left it.

On Saturday night, Sabathia returned to Miller Park for the first time since that Wild Card clinching day back in '08, now as a member of the Yankees, the team that signed him away from Milwaukee. If you needed a reminder that he is no longer 28 years old and at the height of his powers, it came on his third pitch, which Carlos Gomez hammered nearly into the upper deck:

[mlbvideo id="32762617" width="400" height="224" /]

Two innings later in what would ultimately turn into a 5-4 loss, Sabathia allowed back-to-back homers to Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez. He left the game with one out in the sixth, after throwing 107 pitches and allowing four runs on eight hits, and it was easy to see why that bottom line was all he could muster. His fastball, which averaged 94 miles an hour and topped out at 99 during that magical '08 run, never once touched 93, according to the website Brooks Baseball. His slider, once one of the game’s most dependable strikeout pitches, needed dentures. He threw it 36 times to the Brewers on Saturday, and only four times did they swing at it and miss.

Sabathia’s return to Miller Park, in other words, was a stark reminder that if the heavy workloads he always welcomed haven’t caught up with him (since 2001 he had thrown more innings than any pitcher except for Mark Buehrle), then time has. He will turn 34 in July, and he has not yet proved to be the type of pitcher who can resort to craftiness and control once his stuff fades. His ERA through eight starts is 5.28, and it actually improved on Saturday (he entered the day at 5.75), as an error by shortstop Brendan Ryan ensured that those three third-inning runs were unearned, even if the homers that produced them certainly were.

The Yankees will still owe their erstwhile ace a minimum of $53 million over the two seasons after this one, but it is right now that they really need him. At the moment – with Michael Pineda injured in the short term, Ivan Nova injured in the long term and Hiroki Kuroda looking every one of his 39 years – they appear to have exactly one dependable starter, Masahiro Tanaka. There will likely be no equivalent of the '08 Sabathia to reel in during the summer, and even if there is, the Yankees do not appear to have the bait needed to land him, as far as highly-rated prospects go. For the Yankees to contend, they will need Sabathia to pitch like some version of his former self. His return to Milwaukee suggested that there might be no turning back the clock.
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