When Senators righthander and future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson struck out Indians pitcher Stan Coveleski on July 22, 1923, to become the first man in MLB history to reach 3,000 career punchouts, there was no celebration. At least, there’s no record of such in the nation’s newspapers, which dutifully reported Johnson’s achievement with a short Associated Press story in their sports pages but provided nothing beyond that. If the game stopped so the fans at Cleveland’s Dunn Field could applaud, or so that Johnson’s teammates could congratulate him, there’s no indication. Instead, the founding of one of the game’s most exclusive clubs happened and passed with little to no fanfare.
It would take 51 years before another pitcher—Cardinals righty Bob Gibson—joined Johnson. Just 14 more would follow him over the next 44 years, occasionally in spurts: Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton all joined between July 1980 and May 1981, and that decade saw seven pitchers crack 3,000. But the pace slowed from there, and since John Smoltz became the last to hit the mark on April 22, 2008, there haven’t been any.
That is, until Tuesday night, when Yankees lefty CC Sabathia, making his 542nd career start in his 19th season at the age of 38, struck out Diamondbacks catcher John Ryan Murphy to finish the second inning of New York’s game against Arizona to become the 17th man to reach 3,000 strikeouts.
The outcome was a foregone conclusion: Sabathia entered the season with 2,986 and his start with three to go, and despite starting the year late due to offseason heart surgery and a five-game suspension earned at the end of 2018, he was going to get there barring a serious injury. He did it in style, too, punching out the side (around a Wilmer Flores home run).
Unlike the man who first broke the barrier, Sabathia received plenty of adulation: loud cheers from a road crowd nonetheless full of Yankees fans, including his wife, Amber, and his four children; and hugs from his teammates on the field. Throughout it all, Sabathia seemed vaguely embarrassed, as if having the game stop solely for him was an affront. He had no visible reaction after striking out Murphy, simply walking off the mound while catcher Gary Sanchez pumped his fist and gripped the milestone-clinching ball as if it were about to sprout wings and fly away. He smiled as he accepted an endless stream of handshakes from teammates and kisses from his family, which had moved down near the Yankees’ dugout. The pomp and pageantry likely would have been longer and louder had Sabathia reached 3,000 in the Bronx, but you almost got the sense that he preferred this shorter salute. He may have made history, but this was still just a job, in the end.
That business-like approach suits what Sabathia has become in what will be his final major league season. As a young man, he threw 95 mph and ate innings with relish. In his greatest stretch, when the Brewers traded for him midway through 2008, he threw seven complete games in 17 starts—a feat that’s hard to imagine any pitcher in this day and age ever approaching. That earned him a massive $161 million free-agent deal with the Yankees, which he turned into more money through an opt-out, and he helped pitch New York to a World Series championship in 2009.
But after that came injuries, mostly to his right knee, that left Sabathia a shadow of his old self, velocity sapped and stamina drained. Forced to reinvent, he became the stereotypical crafty lefty, replacing his declining fastball with a darting cutter and slider. Left for dead, he rose up, becoming a valuable presence at the back of the Yankees’ rotation as he gutted out starts five or six innings at a time. In the process, he went from a man you easily would have imagined reaching 3,000 strikeouts to one who would’ve needed a miracle to do it—and who ended up there anyway, as much through his wiles as his sheer force of will, dutifully grinding away.
The debate around Sabathia, now that 3,000 is in the books, will switch to his Hall of Fame worthiness (deserving but not a lock) and his place in the game’s history (a representative of a bygone era of pitching as one of the game’s last true workhorses). But even if Sabathia shakes off the celebration, it’s worth recognizing what reaching 3,000 means: a long stretch of dominance, made all the more impressive by how far from this place he was just three or four years ago, and by how hard it is to reach that point at all. Fewer men have 3,000 or more strikeouts than 3,000 or more hits (32), 300 or more wins (24), 500 or more home runs (27), or 500 or more steals (39). Its members are the elite of the elite: Aside from Sabathia, only Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens aren’t enshrined in Cooperstown. He’s not an ace anymore, but he persevered, and that counts just as much. No matter how you get across the finish line, what matters is that you did.
Beyond 3,000 strikeouts, there will be no major milestones left for Sabathia. He’s the active leader in wins at 247, but 300 is out of the question. He should pass Smoltz (3,084) for 16th all-time in strikeouts and has an outside chance at getting by Schilling (3,116) and Gibson (3,117) for 14th place. Any further than that, though, is unlikely. And another title will depend on forces far beyond his control: No longer does he have the power to put a team on his back and carry them into and through October.
But even if this is the last time Sabathia gets time on the national stage, he’s earned his turn in the spotlight. Not that he necessarily wants it: After striking out Murphy to finish the second inning, he threw another 3 1/3 frames, getting another two whiffs, before calling it a night. The game moves on, and Sabathia goes along with it.