CC 3K! The stories behind Sabathia's most significant strikeouts

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Now in his final season in the bigs, CC Sabathia admits one number has been flashing through his mind frequently since spring training began in February: 3,000.

Whether prepping for a game, pitching in one, or even taking in a quiet, off-the-field moment, the New York Yankees starter and possible future Hall of Famer has regularly been preoccupied with thoughts about one of baseball's roundest and most iconic numbers.

Specifically, he has pondered joining just 16 other pitchers in major league history to record 3,000 strikeouts. By doing that Tuesday, the southpaw also became only the third lefty to accomplish the hallowed feat.

Still, as the moment approached, Sabathia's patience had grown thin.

"I'm just ready for it to be over with," he'd said.

In honor of him reaching No. 3,000 at last, here's a look back at a few strikeouts that helped make this career-defining feat possible.

No. 1: CC's first K comes on special day

Date: April 8, 2001

Place: Cleveland

Victim: Mike Kinkade

Drafted 20th overall three years prior, 2001's youngest big league player made his major league debut from the Jacobs Field mound. At 20 years and 261 days old, a baby-faced Sabathia pitched that day with mostly veteran savvy.

Across 5 innings, he allowed three hits and three runs, and struck out a trio of Baltimore Orioles. The first opponent he retired on strikes was the left fielder, Kinkade, who ultimately went 0-for-3 in the 4-3 Cleveland victory.

As nice as it was to notch his first big league K, Sabathia still would have liked it to have come against anyone other than Kinkade.

"I remember thinking that it's kind of wack, because I faced Mike Kinkade a bunch in the minor leagues," Sabathia said recently, laughing. "I was wishing it was like Cal Ripken or somebody.

"Him being the first guy I strike out was just kind of eh."

Still, the strikeout helped get Sabathia out of his shakiest inning of an otherwise sterling start. All of the runs and two of the hits he allowed came in the first. Prior to Kinkade's at-bat, Mike Bordick doubled to center and Delino DeShields Sr. walked. With both on and just one out, Jeff Conine rudely introduced himself to the rookie, powering a three-run homer to left.

Immediately after the home run, Sabathia attacked the next batter, Kinkade, with a fastball that at the time could reach the upper 90s. Sabathia ended the at-bat with gas, too. Already on his third five-pitch plate appearance of the game, Sabathia got Kinkade looking at a fastball down and in.

Nos. 70, 73, 78: Sabathia stymies his future skipper

Date: July 13, 2001

Place: Cincinnati

Victim: Aaron Boone

Sabathia and Boone weren't always on the same page, let alone the same team.

Long before Boone managed the pitcher with the Yankees or played with him in Cleveland (in 2005-06), he'd be one of the guys stepping into the box against CC. Boone is among the 1,179 men with at least one plate appearance against the now-38-year-old Sabathia over the past 19 seasons.

"Not good" is how Boone continues to describe his at-bats against Sabathia. "Not good at all. That's on the short list of at-bats that weren't very comfortable for me ... not fun."

It's understandable why: Boone's six career chances against Sabathia didn't go very well. He went 1-for-6 with four strikeouts and an infield single he sarcastically gloated about at the time. "I got to first and I was talking smack to him," Boone said recently of the June 2003 hit toward third, which he scratched out in his penultimate career at-bat versus Sabathia.

In a game more than two years prior, though, Sabathia -- still a week shy of his 21st birthday -- made his future skipper look silly. "He struck me out three times and I fell down the third time, swinging," Boone said. "And I'm like, 'Who is this guy?'"

It didn't take long for the rest of baseball to find out.

No. 1,393: CC completes wild-card chase

Date: Sept. 28, 2008

Place: Milwaukee

Victim: Casey McGehee

July 7, 2008, was an off day for the Indians. They had just traveled the night before from Minnesota to Detroit, and were mired in an eight-game losing streak and stuck 13 games out of first place in the American League Central. With their season all but over and the trade deadline looming, they shopped their biggest assets.

Among those on the trade block: Sabathia, the prized pitcher who had eased into his prime and was in the middle of a career year for punchouts. As Sabathia stalked his way to 251 Ks, the Indians and Brewers worked out a trade that injected him squarely into a playoff chase that went all the way to the wire.

After the deal (Sabathia was swapped for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and a player to be named later who turned out to be Michael Brantley), Sabathia was every bit of the pitcher the Brewers could've hoped for.

Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA with Milwaukee across the final two and a half months of the season. The team went 14-3 in the games he started.

Because of his late-year success leading the Brew Crew, it only made sense to hand Sabathia the ball with the team's season on the line in Game 162. The Brewers needed two things to happen: They needed to beat the division-rival Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets to lose to the Florida Marlins.

Nine innings later, with a screaming Sabathia still standing on the mound, the Brewers earned the 3-1 win they needed. Minutes later, the Mets did their job, too.

As part of his complete-game effort (then the 26th complete game of his career, and 10th that season alone), Sabathia struck out seven Cubs on 122 pitches. His last one, the 251st K of his two-team season, proved he was only getting stronger as the game continued.

Sabathia was asked this week about this strikeout and any memories he had of postseason punchouts he'd recorded over the years. As big as those moments were, he said he doesn't really recall the individual outs.

"I can remember games [like the win over the Cubs]," Sabathia said. "But I never really like tripped on [the strikeouts] like that. It just was what it was. The numbers were going to be there no matter what, so I never really thought about it. I never really reflected on it or thought on it or anything like that."

Sabathia, after all, has pitched to more than 14,500 batters in his career.

The pivotal strikeout of McGehee came in the top of the eighth inning in the regular-season finale. Sabathia had just gotten Ronny Cedeno with an 81 mph breaking pitch down when McGehee stepped in. Four pitches later, an 82 mph backdoor slider caught him looking.

"It was his game," acting Brewers manager Dale Sveum said of Sabathia after the win. "It was his year. It was his two months. It was his game to give his as long as he could possibly go. He's just a special human being."

It was Sabathia's third start that month on three days' rest. He would have one more start on three days' rest that year: in a Game 2 National League Division Series loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

No. 1,400: CC christens Yankee Stadium III

Date: April 16, 2009

Place: Bronx

Victim: Victor Martinez

With his 2008 season ending in October disappointment, and a free agent for what would be the only time in his career, Sabathia sought an opportunity to fulfill a prophecy issued years before by his late father, Carsten Sr.

"He always told me I'd play for the Yankees, and when I was in Cleveland, I'd be like, 'No, no chance. I'm going to be an Indian my whole career,'" Sabathia said. "He always said, 'When you're a free agent, the Yankees are going to come get you and you're going to win a World Series with the Yankees.'"

And the Yankees did come calling. Two months after his run with the Brewers ended, Sabathia inked a seven-year, $161 million deal to put on the pinstripes -- with his retirement looming at the end of this season, it will be the last MLB uniform he'll ever wear.

Sabathia's debut in the Bronx was historic. For the first time since 1923, the ballclub was calling a new building its long-term home. The latest iteration of Yankee Stadium was opening that day, across the street from the House That Ruth Built, accompanied by all the fanfare of the truly momentous occasion.

Yankees royalty -- from Yogi Berra to Reggie Jackson to then-shortstop Derek Jeter -- was there. The Boss was there. Jay-Z was there. New York's political elite were there, too. Even Babe Ruth's bat was in the house.

All this required Sabathia -- for the first time, facing the team that drafted him -- to be his very best. He came through, allowing just one run in a 5-inning performance worth celebrating.

His bullpen, unfortunately, failed him, and the Bronx Bombers' bats didn't show up, either. Thanks to a nine-run Indians seventh inning, the Yankees opened the new Stadium with a 10-2 loss to Cleveland.

In keeping with the theme of wanting to make a good first impression, though, Sabathia worked quickly to register his first strikeout in the Bronx -- and the first strikeout ever at the new ballpark. To cap a 1-2-3 first, he got Martinez swinging.

Bonus K: Sabathia stops Werth, World Series threat

Date: Nov. 1, 2009

Place: Philadelphia

Victim: Jayson Werth

Though it doesn't count toward his career strikeout total, this punchout might be the biggest Sabathia's ever had.

It came in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the 2009 World Series. Closing in on the completion of his father's prophecy, Sabathia pitched that night at Citizens Bank Park just two games away from earning his first championship ring.

With the Yankees leading the series 2-1 and holding a 4-2 lead in the fifth, Sabathia faced a massive test.

With his pitch count soaring, Sabathia got in trouble to start off the inning when he allowed both Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins to reach. After getting two quick popouts, Sabathia was greeted at the plate by Werth, the Phillies' power-hitting 5-hole slugger who'd gone to his first All-Star Game earlier that year, and who'd had a career-high 36 homers in the regular season.

With one swing of his bat, Werth could've turned around not only the game, but possibly the series.

The tension could be felt the entirety of the seven-pitch at-bat. The home crowd roared louder and louder with each pitch. Werth continually called time, twice stepping out of the box to collect his thoughts and keep Sabathia from knocking him off his rhythm. Twice more Sabathia stepped off the mound, conferring in meetings with Derek Jeter and catcher Jorge Posada about signs they wanted to use with a runner at second base. It was following that second meeting with Posada (who didn't flash a sign before walking out to speak briefly with Sabathia) that the 4-minute, 20-second at-bat ended with one of Sabathia's 121 career postseason strikeouts.

Werth was retired by an 85 mph changeup he chased off the plate down and away. Inning over. The Yankees' 4-2 lead remained intact. Sabathia kept New York out in front across the next two innings before an eighth-inning homer off Joba Chamberlain tied the game. A half-inning later, though, the Yankees plated three of their own to run away with a victory that gave them a 3-1 Fall Classic advantage.

Two games later, Sabathia was a World Series champion.

"You have to understand," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said to ESPN's Howard Bryant just after that World Series, "that CC came here to be in the middle of it. He didn't come here to be on the sideline. He came here for a piece of the action."

No. 2,444: CC's injuries prompt change

Date: May 10, 2014

Place: Milwaukee

Victim: Jeff Bianchi

Not every Sabathia strikeout has a feel-good story attached to it. Many of the K's he's recorded in recent years have been accompanied by some degree of physical pain.

On this strikeout, Sabathia, pitching at Miller Park for the first time since the day he sent the Brewers into the 2008 playoffs, got Bianchi swinging on the seventh pitch. It was the only plate appearance against Sabathia for Bianchi, a backup third baseman who had entered the game for Aramis Ramirez.

Coming one day before Mother's Day, Sabathia's 2,444th career strikeout would be the last of his 14th season. The next day, he went on the 15-day injured list with fluid in his knee. He'd eventually be moved to the 60-day IL and ultimately lost for the year.

Indeed, across the latter eight years of his career, Sabathia has served IL stints for sore elbows, strained groin muscles, strained hamstrings, a strained hip, heart surgery, and the most common of them all, knee inflammation.

Knee troubles ended Sabathia's season after the start in Milwaukee, and, since then, those troubles have persisted.

Arthritis has set into Sabathia's right knee, requiring constant attention and treatment. This past offseason, Sabathia had another surgery on the knee. The injuries have helped rob him of the high-90s velocity he once had, forcing him to change his approach on the mound.

Gone are the days of his power-pitching prowess. Now, instead of relying regularly on his four-seamer, Sabathia nibbles a little more at the strike zone with his late-moving cutter. To embrace his time as more of a finesse pitcher, Sabathia spent the better part of the past six seasons talking to cut-fastball experts and former Yankees Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte.

After three straight seasons (2014-16) with losing records, Sabathia returned to form in 2017, posting a 14-5 record. He finished a winner in 2018, too, at 9-7.

"Between his knees, you just [wonder] how much longer can this go? Then he just follows it up with another he-finds-a-way type of year," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.

No. 2,829: CC K's rivals to spark playoff push

Date: Aug. 31, 2017

Place: Bronx

Victim:Rafael Devers

Much like with the Brewers in 2008, Sabathia found himself in the middle of a somewhat unexpected playoff push in the summer of 2017.

The Yankees had begun revamping the organization and focusing on building a new core. But they didn't expect that group to mature as quickly as it did -- led by the season's eventual American League Rookie of the Year, Aaron Judge.

Before coming within a game of going to the World Series, though, this group needed to prove in August and September that it could be a postseason team. Part of that challenge rested in beating the rival Boston Red Sox.

Sabathia had already faced the Red Sox three times in 2017 before meeting them on the final day of August, and he'd recorded a win each time. The 36-year-old was a Boston bugaboo.

Knowing that, and also understanding Sabathia couldn't move off the mound like he used to, speedy Red Sox 2-hole hitter Eduardo Nunez attempted in the first inning to reach with a surprise bunt single.

He was successful, getting Sabathia to hobble off the mound and rush an errant throw to first. Although Nunez reached on the throwing error and the Red Sox ultimately loaded the bases in the first inning, Sabathia still got out of the jam unscathed with a pair of strikeouts.

On the first one, Sabathia gotXander Bogaertslooking at an 80 mph backdoor slider that started just off the outer edge of the strike zone, and ended up breaking into the heart of the plate by the time it popped into catcherGary Sanchez's glove.

Devers was the second strikeout victim in the once-promising Boston inning. After working the count full, the left-handed hitter flailed at an 82 mph slider that swept down and just off the plate away. As soon as he recorded the inning-ending K, Sabathia started shouting in the direction of third base, where Nunez stood as a baserunner, before quickly turning and walking toward the Yankees' dugout. A camera caught him yelling a couple of expletives to no one in particular as he sauntered across the first-base line.

After the game, Sabathia admitted being angered by Nunez's early-game tactic.

"Just kind of weak to me. It is what it is. It shows what they got over there," Sabathia said. "It just gets you fired up. It makes you want to beat them. Obviously, I want to win every time I go out there, but even more so after that."

Sabathia later said that as he walked off the mound that inning, he shouted toward the Boston dugout: "Swing the bat."

Nunez, Sabathia's teammate from 2010-13, apologized to the pitcher during the game, but pulled no punches after it.

"It's my game. I cannot change my game," Nunez said. "We know he has a bad knee. That's not my problem. If I have to bunt four times in a row, I'll do it. I don't care if he's mad or not. ... Play, or field the bunt. I don't care."

After those first-inning fireworks, Sabathia settled into a strong performance that saw him strike out six and allow just one run in six innings.

In that first inning, Sabathia helped set the tone not only for the eventual 6-2 win, but also, in a way, for the rest of the season.

Once again, Sabathia had given the Yankees a victory the day after they'd lost a game. At that point in 2017, he was 8-0 when pitching on days following New York losses. He's currently 15-1 in such games since the start of the 2017 season.

Just before the Yankees beat the Red Sox in that series opener, they had lost five of their previous seven games. The Yankees would take three of four from Boston and go 20-9 in September to earn a spot in the American League wild-card game, ultimately coming one win shy of the World Series.

No. 2,990: In CC's last stand, the countdown is on

Date: April 19, 2019

Place: Bronx

Victim:Whit Merrifield

Entering the second start of his final season -- following offseason angioplasty and knee surgery -- Sabathia needed 11 strikeouts to hit the 3,000 milestone. Very early in the game, he looked determined to get every one of them that night.

Against the first batter he faced, Kansas City's Merrifield, Sabathia's velocity never got higher than 89.3 mph. And that was quite all right. After Merrifield fouled off a cutter and a slider, Sabathia came back on a 2-2 count with an 83 mph changeup to which the Royals first baseman just had no answer. Swing and miss ... 10 strikeouts to go.

By the end of the five-inning effort, Sabathia had struck out five Royals, and sat just six K's away from immortality.

"Vintage CC," said Brett Gardner, the Yankees' longest-tenured player aside from Sabathia. "It's been a lot of fun to play alongside him throughout the years. ... To be able to see the way he goes about his business, it's been quite a pleasure."

No. 3,000: CC 3K!

Date: April 30, 2019

Place: Phoenix

Victim: John Ryan Murphy

This particular magical number came after Sabathia threw four pitches to get into a 1-2 count with Murphy. After throwing only cut fastballs to Murphy (three of which he fouled off), Sabathia ended the historic at-bat by breaking off an 84.2 mph changeup that Murphy whiffed right through.

Three fun facts about Murphy's previous connections to Yankees history, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: On Sept. 26, 2013, Murphy (who was a second-round Yankees draft pick in 2009) caught Mariano Rivera's final appearance. Then, on Nov. 11, 2015, Murphy was traded to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. And now he's CC's 3,000th strikeout.

"When I actually got that last strike, I didn't want it to be Murph," Sabathia said. "Me and him are really close, I've been knowing him his whole career. He's a great guy. I didn't want it to be [opposing starter Zack] Greinke, and I didn't want it to be Murph."

After the strikeout, Sabathia and Murphy had a moment at home plate as Sabathia dug in for his first of two at-bats. Both ended in K's of his own.

"It's one of those awesome numbers: 3,000 hits, 500 homers, 3,000 strikeouts," Boone said before the game. "That's what I grew up with in my mind, and I think I got to see Rod Carew hit 3,000, Reggie [Jackson] 500 [homers], Don Sutton 3,000 [strikeouts], 300 wins.

"Those are magical numbers in our sport, and people should take notice when people come up upon them."

Related Video