Sabathia chased one of his lifelong dreams for 7 2/3 innings of riveting baseball on Saturday, trying to maintain his usual cool and chatty composure even as the zeroes kept piling up on the scoreboard without any activity in the Rays' hit column.
The lefty's bid for his first career no-hitter ended when Kelly Shoppach singled on Sabathia's 111th pitch of the afternoon. After the Yankees' 10-0 win was in the books, manager Joe Girardi revealed that Sabathia would have been done after that at-bat -- no matter what -- due to his pitch count.
"It makes it easy now, but we would have been fighting out there on the mound," Sabathia said, with a grin. "I felt good, but I understand where he's coming from, too. It's my second start of the year, so it would have been a good discussion."
Girardi didn't breathe sighs of relief when Shoppach lined that two-seam fastball in front of left fielder Brett Gardner, ending Sabathia's masterpiece in the eighth inning. But after Girardi earlier told pitching coach Dave Eiland that Sabathia was limited to 110-115 pitches, it protected the skipper from a firestorm of debate.
"He looked good to me, but you have to think ahead," Girardi said. "You can't be short-sighted. I would have loved to see him walk out with no hits in eight innings, but it didn't happen. It made it really easy to go get him."
Girardi admitted that he probably would have been booed even by the Rays fans in attendance, who had put aside their clanging cowbells in great numbers when it became apparent Sabathia had a shot to accomplish something special under the three rings of catwalks in St. Pete.
"It was crazy. It was loud in here," Sabathia said. "It felt like we were at home, with a lot of Yankees fans. They started chanting. It was definitely a good feeling."
Sabathia struck out five and permitted only two walks, getting the help of his defense when he needed it. He was on the receiving end of two key plays by corner infielders Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
Sabathia retired the first 12 Rays before walking Evan Longoria to open the fifth, then recovered to keep the string going, with rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli pumping his fist exuberantly after Sabathia blew a 96-mph fastball past Pat Burrell to end the fifth.
In the sixth, Teixeira dove to his right to flag down a soft Jason Bartlett line drive, safely nestling it in his glove as he landed on the infield dirt. Sabathia appreciatively waited for Teixeira on the way off the field, exchanging fist bumps with the Gold Glove first baseman.
In the seventh, B.J. Upton ripped the Rays' hardest shot of the day down the third-base line, but A-Rod snared it in what would have been the play of the game, making a classic diving stop, leaping to his feet and firing to first base to retire the side.
"Especially after Al made that play, everybody was fired up," Sabathia said. "I came in the dugout and I said, 'I have a pretty good chance here.' I just made a pitch, left it up to Shoppach and he put a good swing on it."
Little did Sabathia know that Girardi and Eiland were already conversing in the dugout, agreeing that Sabathia probably wouldn't have a shot to finish what he started.
|"It's hard to say I want to throw a no-hitter one day, because it's so hard to do. You have to be lucky. When you get that close and you're in a game, you want to try to have it happen for you."|
|-- CC Sabathia|
Chan Ho Park started warming up in the seventh and Dave Robertson got loose in the eighth, activity that Sabathia tried to ignore. But had Shoppach been retired, Girardi insisted that it would have been Robertson -- and not Sabathia -- who came out for the ninth inning.
"I didn't even look at my pitch count, to be honest with you. That was like the furthest thing from my mind," Sabathia said. "Obviously, Joe was."
Girardi agreed, saying, "Watching that pitch count go up and up and up, that was what was on my mind the most."
In 1996, Girardi watched Joe Torre take out David Cone in his first start back from an aneurysm, a seven-inning no-hit bid at the Oakland Coliseum. Girardi told Eiland that he was prepared to do the same to make sure Sabathia would be healthy for the rest of the season.
"CC would have fought us on it, but he would have understood," Eiland said. "I think anybody with any baseball sense would have understood. We're trying to accomplish something here that we try to accomplish every year. To push the envelope on April 10 doesn't make any sense."
Sabathia said that he would "probably not" have won the debate with Girardi and Eiland, but added, "I would have tried my best."
The Yankees provided Sabathia with all the cushion he'd need early, putting up four runs against Rays starter Wade Davis through six innings. New York got to the right-hander for seven hits and four walks with three strikeouts.
Robinson Cano slugged a two-run homer, his second of the season, in the fourth, and the Yankees added two more in the fifth as Derek Jeter singled home a run and Teixeira snapped his 0-for-17 skid with a run-scoring double that rattled into the right-field corner.
The earliest a no-hitter had been thrown on a regular-season schedule was Bob Feller's in a 1-0 victory over the White Sox on April 16, 1940, the only Opening Day no-no in baseball history. The earliest one had been achieved in terms of calendar date was Hideo Nomo's first start for the Red Sox on April 4, 2001, when he turned in his second career no-hitter in a 3-0 victory over the Orioles.
Former Yankee Randy Choate served up four runs in the eighth, including Cervelli's two-run double, that put all of the focus squarely on Sabathia's pursuit of what could have been the first Yankees no-hitter since Cone threw a perfect game on July 18, 1999.
Sabathia said that his last no-hitter came for Vallejo (Calif.) High School, when pitch counts were unheard of. He has had a few memorable close calls in the big leagues, most notably against the Pirates on Aug. 31, 2008, when he was pitching for the Brewers.
Andy LaRoche led off the fifth inning of that game with a grounder that Sabathia couldn't field, which was ruled a hit -- the only one he would give up in the game. The Brewers later appealed that it should have actually been an error, but were overruled.
Sabathia also took a no-hitter into the eighth inning for Cleveland on April 7, 2002, at Detroit, with Randall Simon breaking up that bid with a leadoff single.
But Saturday was the furthest Sabathia had made it without giving up a hit, and at least until next time, it will have to do.
"It's hard to say I want to throw a no-hitter one day, because it's so hard to do," Sabathia said. "You have to be lucky. When you get that close and you're in a game, you want to try to have it happen for you."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.