This weekend, the New York Yankees come to Milwaukee for a series at Miller Park for the first time since 2005. Whereas most cities have been preparing to roll out the red carpet to celebrate Derek Jeter's final series, Brewers fans circled this weekend's series on the calendar for a different reason: CC Sabathia will make his first baseball trip to Milwaukee since spearheading the 2008 wild-card club, the first Brewers playoff team since the 1982 American League Champions. When Sabathia is introduced as the Yankees' starter Saturday night, expect a rousing ovation from a full Miller Park crowd.
On July 7, 2008, the Brewers sent top prospect hitter Matt LaPorta, pitchers Rob Bryson and Zach Jackson, and a player to be named later to Cleveland in exchange for a few months of Sabathia's services. Sabathia was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season, and it was exceedingly obvious that Sabathia was a rental for Milwaukee -- that he would be gone for a massive contract the small market Brewers couldn't hope to match.
But on July 7, 2008, the Brewers held the third-best record in the National League at 49-40. They sat four games behind the Cubs and just a half-game behind St. Louis for the lone wild-card slot. On July 7, Seth McClung was in the rotation. Staff ace Ben Sheets was set to become a free agent following the season. In 2007, the Brewers had managed to blow a 8.5 game July division lead to extend their streak of seasons without a playoff berth to 25 years. Desperation was in the air.
And so that was the message to CC Sabathia on July 8, as he took the mound for the first time in a Brewers uniform: Save our franchise. Sabathia was shaky in his first start with Milwaukee. He walked five batters and gave up five hits in just six innings. In that sixth inning, with a 4-3 lead, the Rockies threatened with runners on second and third and nobody out. But Sabathia turned a beautiful line drive double play on the next batter, Jayson Nix, and then struck out Brad Hawpe to end the inning and escape with the lead. Sabathia was emphatic as he returned to the dugout for the final time that day, as he let out a scream and pumped his fist. Sabathia had held on, and the Milwaukee home crowd erupted. It would turn out to be the theme of the summer.
Sabathia's next three games were all complete game victories, with 26 combined strikeouts against just 15 hits and three walks. He won his first eight decisions with Milwaukee. He struck out nine batters eight times in 17 starts with the Brewers. He recorded two shutouts, one at St. Louis and one at Pittsburgh (a one-hitter which included an egregious hit call by the Pittsburgh home scorekeeper) -- which, combined with Sabathia's two shutouts in Cleveland before the trade, made him the league leader in both leagues in shutouts.
The Brewers needed every win, every inning, every pitch. Although the Brewers went 12-3 in Sabathia's first 15 starts, they went just 23-29 in the 52 games in between he didn't start. And so in the last week of the season, as Sabathia had done for much of September, Sabathia started twice on three days' rest. On Sept. 24, Sabathia struck out 11 Pirates, gave up one run on four hits and two walks, and earned his 10th win as a Brewer. And on September 28th, the season finale, Sabathia fired a 122-pitch complete game in which he allowed just one unearned run on four hits and a walk. The Brewers finished at 90-72, one game ahead of the New York Mets in the wild-card race.
The lasting image of Sabathia in a Brewers uniform comes from that game 162, as the gigantic lefty watched Ray Durham and J.J. Hardy turn the double play to end the season and put the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since Yount, Molitor and the rest of Harvey's Wallbangers in 1982.
As the 27th and final out was recorded, Sabathia screamed empahatically, just as he had done a few months earlier as he closed out that shaky first start against Colorado. He had put the team on his back for that month of September, in which the Brewers went just 10-16, fired manager Ned Yost with 12 games remaining in the season, and had to scratch and claw just to hold on to their wild-card spot.
The final numbers for Sabathia as a Brewer: 130 2/3 innings, a 1.65 ERA, 128 strikeouts against 25 walks, 14 team wins in 17 starts, seven complete games, and one playoff berth.
The Brewers fell to the eventual World Series champion Phillies in the first round. A late-season injury to Ben Sheets put a major dent in the starting rotation, and when Sabathia lost Game 2 in Philadelphia -- partly due to the exhaustion of his stunning second half run, and partly due to some poor defense -- the 2008 Brewers were done.
Milwaukee offered Sabathia a five-year, $100 million contract after the 2008 season, but it was a mere formality. Everybody knew the Yankees would blow the Brewers and every other offer out of the water. Every fanbase has its cranks, but by and large, Wisconsin's baseball fans had made peace with the fact that Sabathia would be but a brief player on their home stage. And when the performance is as sublime as Sabathia's 17 starts for Milwaukee were, there is little point in getting greedy.
This weekend, a very different CC Sabathia will take the mound in Milwaukee. It will be a much slimmer Sabathia than Milwaukee fans recall, but more to the point, Sabathia has seemingly lost his ace stuff over the past couple of years in New York. In over 250 innings since the start of the 2013 season, Sabathia has a 4.94 ERA. His fastball sits in the low-90s rather than the mid-90s, and he has yet to make the adjustment necessary to succeed with lesser velocity. His 9.7 K/9 and 4.9 K/BB in 2014 are reminiscent of the pitcher who dominated in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the early days of his Yankee career, but hitters have already teed off for seven home runs in seven starts.
Still, when Sabathia takes the mound in Milwaukee on Saturday, the capacity crowd won't see an albatross contract. They won't see a pitcher who is struggling to live up to his billing as staff ace of the New York Yankees. Rather, they will see the same man they saw on September 28, 2008, the afternoon Sabathia willed Milwaukee into the playoffs with one of the best performances of one of the best half-seasons of professional baseball history. It was just three months, just 17 starts, just another season that ended without a World Series win for the Milwaukee Brewers. But what Sabathia did over that short time is nearly unmatched in baseball history, and certainly unmatched in the relatively short history of the Milwaukee Brewers. And so when Sabathia toes the Miller Park rubber on Saturday, for the first time since that complete game victory in September 2008, and the roars of the crowd wash over the stadium, the message will be simple and heartfelt: