The New York Yankees were at Miller Park on Saturday night, and Sabathia was on the hill. This was the site of one of the finest stretches of Sabathia's career. Traded by the Indians to the Brewers at midseason in 2008, Sabathia basically put the Milwaukee club on his back and carried it into the postseason. Down the stretch, he pitched on three days' rest, voluntarily and regularly. Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts for the Brewers, lifting them to an National League Wild Card berth.
After that, there was free agency, major money, the Yanks and the 2009 World Series championship. But Sabathia's work here was not forgotten. He received an ovation from the Miller Park sellout crowd of 43,085 when he came to the plate for the first time. And Sabathia received another sustained ovation when he was removed from the game in the sixth inning.
When Sabathia was carrying the Milwaukee franchise in 2008 and being the ace of a championship staff in '09, he was a power pitcher in the prime of his career. His pitch selection could vary, but the big overpowering fastball was at the core of his work.
In a career otherwise characterized by consistency, durability and success, Sabathia has been struggling since midseason last year. Saturday night, Sabathia's fastball topped out at 92 mph, but was primarily in the 89-91 range. If Sabathia had a favorite pitch, it appeared to be a back-door slider thrown to right-handed hitters. He depended in large part on offspeed pitches.
This is a pitcher making a transition, or at least attempting a transition from power to finesse. This is not an unusual career arc, but it is also much easier said than done.
This night was not catastrophic for Sabathia, but it was also not successful. He was not involved in the decision, but the Yankees lost, 5-4. A three-run third inning for the Brewers was not all Sabathia's fault, but he was not able to limit the damage, either, as a 2-1 Yanks lead became a 4-2 deficit.
With two out and none on, Jean Segura hit a chopper toward short. Brendan Ryan, filling in for Derek Jeter, charged but could not field the ball cleanly, and the speedy Segura was on with an error charged to Ryan. Jonathan Lucroy followed with a two-run homer on a 0-2 pitch. On the next pitch, Aramis Ramirez hit a solo homer. All the runs were unearned, but Sabathia had let this inning get away from him.
"It's just frustrating, being within one pitch and not being able to finish," Sabathia said. "You've got to pick your guys up. They pick me up all the time. Unfortunately, I just wasn't able to make the pitch right there."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that this sort of thing was at the core of Sabathia's problem.
"I've said all along, I think he's throwing the ball better than he was last year," Girardi said. "I think the sinker has been better. I think the changeup has been better. It's just been a few innings here and there. He needs to figure out a way to stop those innings, and when he does, he'll get on a roll.
"I still maintain that most of the time his stuff is really good. When he makes mistakes, they hit him. I see him making good pitches, but ... his mistakes have gotten hit."
Sabathia gave up three home runs on Saturday night, including a mammoth shot by Carlos Gomez leading off the first. But after the trouble in the third, he did come back to retire eight batters in a row. A walk and two singles in the sixth led to Sabathia's departure, but reliever Dellin Betances bailed him out with two strikeouts.
After giving up one earned run over 5 1/3 innings, Sabathia's ERA dropped, but only to 5.28. He has been hittable, giving up 10 home runs in 46 innings over eight starts.
These numbers do not resemble his typical work. Saturday night, there was encouragement to be taken from the fact that Sabathia pitched well enough to keep his team in the game.
"I feel like I got better tonight," Sabathia said. "It's not going to be overnight for me, it's going to be a process, but I'm building on getting better, and tonight was a step in the right direction.
"I'm not going to sit here and kill myself and be negative. I'm just not doing that this year. We'll go from here and I'll be out there five days from now, and I'll be ready to go.
"Just keep battling, go from here and try to get better."
The one undiluted moment of joy for Sabathia here was the warm reception from Milwaukee fans. They did not blame him for leaving for New York and the money, but they were still grateful for what he had done for their team, six years ago.
"That was cool," Sabathia said. "This is the first time I've been back since '08, so it was cool to get a loud ovation like that."
CC Sabathia was a different pitcher then. Nearing age 34, with lots of mileage on his left arm, he is trying to adapt himself to being another kind of pitcher. It is a process, as he says. It just isn't an easy process.