Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 28, 2011

Only Mother Nature Can Beat CC

We’ll never know, of course, whether it made a difference or not. But we Yankees fans will always wonder what if it hadn’t rained? What if it had been just a warm summer eve? Would we have witnessed a bit of history? Instead it was the tail end of a sultry day when CC Sabathia took the mound in the Bronx on Tuesday. Mother Nature was still trying to decide just how she would go about finally and fully easing the recent heat wave.

The big lefthander was attempting to become the first 15-game winner in the majors this year, and had the good fortune to face a Seattle Mariners team that had gone from being part of the conversation in the West to a distant last place by losing sixteen in a row. But while those of us in the stands were confident, we all knew that the game still had to be played.

Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki lined Sabathia’s very first offering into center field, but right at Curtis Granderson. The Yankees’ ace then got Brendan Ryan to swing at a third strike, and Dustin Ackley to ground out to first baseman Mark Teixeira to complete a 1-2-3 inning on just six pitches.

While it took the Mariners’ Doug Fister a few more throws, he was equally impressive in the bottom of the opening frame. After leadoff man Brett Gardner grounded out, Fister struck out both Derek Jeter and Granderson. After one inning it was the Seattle hurler with the higher strikeout total. It was a situation that would not repeat itself.

Sabathia added two strikeouts in the top of the second and another in the third to run his total to four. Then in the top of the fourth inning he began a run of total domination, setting seven consecutive Mariners down on strikes. As the K count rose so did the decibel level in The Stadium. When Curtis Granderson poked an opposite field home run just over the left field wall in the bottom of the fourth to give the home squad a one run lead, we dared begin to think about what we might be watching. Was a no-hitter possible? Might there even be a chance for that ultimate pitching achievement, 27 consecutive outs? At the very least, it seemed like the team strikeout record of 18 was in jeopardy.

But even as hopes rose, so did concern. For above us the sky was darkening, and not just from the approach of nightfall. Heavy, dark clouds began moving over The Stadium. Then, even as the Yankees added three more runs in the fifth and Sabathia continued his amazing performance on the mound, the sky began to light up at points dishearteningly close by. The lightning danced just above the frieze along the third base line and then again beyond the giant “Yankee Stadium” sign in center field.

If the hopes of more than 46,000 could move a storm, then the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue would certainly have been spared. But it was not to be. While the Yankees took the field for the top of the sixth inning the wind suddenly turned. As happens with a summer thunderstorm, one could sense and even smell the approaching rain before it arrived. Even as designated hitter Mike Carp stepped into the batter’s box, about to become Sabathia’s eleventh strikeout victim of the game, the rain began to fall. Moments later, as Carp flailed at strike three the heavens opened, and players, umpires and fans all headed for cover.

No matter how good a night a pitcher is having, an extended rain delay almost certainly spells the end of his evening. To get warm and pitch, then cool off, then try to get warm again raises the risk of injury. If he tries to stay warm by throwing in a tunnel somewhere under the stands, he simply adds to his pitch count. Had this delay been lengthy, Yankee manager Joe Girardi would have faced a hard choice of whether to send Sabathia, who had yet to allow a base runner, back out to the mound. He was spared that unenviable decision when, less than twenty minutes later even as a light rain continued to fall, the grounds crew, surely knowing the need for haste, raced onto the field to begin removing the tarp.

So it was that not quite half an hour after walking off the field, CC Sabathia returned to it, even as the joyful shouts of fans echoed around the park. His perfect evening continued through the remainder of the sixth inning, and he began the seventh by striking out Ichiro. But shortstop Brendan Ryan then dashed the hopes of the fans, lining a clean single into left field. It was the first ball to leave the infield for Seattle since Ichiro’s opening line drive out.

While those of us in the stands groaned our collective dismay, Sabathia seemed even more determined to demonstrate his mastery. His fastball still reaching 95 MPH, he struck out first Dustin Ackley then Miguel Olivo to end the inning and run his total for the night to a career-best fourteen.

But if the night had become a battle of wills between the big pitcher and the elements, nature seemed determined to have the last word. Before Sabathia could again take the mound a second deluge began, and another rain delay ensued. While this one was also brief, Sabathia acknowledged later that it was enough to throw off his timing. When he returned for the eighth, his control was gone. He issued three straight walks before surrendering the ball to manager Girardi.

Setup man David Robertson would escape the bases loaded, no out situation by allowing but a single run, and Mariano Rivera would close the game with a perfect ninth. But before that could happen first there was a moment. A lot of big name pitchers have come to New York at some point in their careers. Not all have succeeded. We fans can be a tough lot, and the media can be vicious. There is no bigger stage, and no brighter spotlight. Some, like Kevin Brown, have seemed utterly lost on that stage. Others, like Randy Johnson, have pitched well but never adjusted to that spotlight. And then there are those, like CC Sabathia, who have thrived in that setting and made it abundantly clear that they love it and the city that creates it. As he walked off the mound for the final time Tuesday evening, not perfect but having allowed just a single base hit while striking out fourteen Mariners, 46,000 of us let CC know that the feeling is entirely mutual.

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