NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees needed to be saved, spared, carried, you name it. They needed to be extricated from the most stubborn of baseball's barnacles, the Baltimore Orioles, and from one last A-Rodian drama that threatened to take them all down.
CC Sabathia was the biggest man for this biggest burden. At 6-foot-7 and pushing 300 pounds, looking more like a defensive tackle than the ace of a big league staff, Sabathia stood tall as a division series that felt like a weeklong fourth-and-goal finally, mercifully, found its defining moment in the eighth inning of Game 5, when Sabathia broke the will of a long shot that did itself proud.
The Yankees held a 3-1 lead with one out, bases loaded and their ace fighting himself on the mound. Sabathia had only the entire season riding on his left arm, and suddenly he was caught up in a vortex of his own design.
"I was just trying to make sure I kept my emotions under wrap," he said. "And I am very emotional, and I can get excited."
Everyone in the house understood why. Sabathia was signed for $161 million before the 2009 season, signed to fix a team Brian Cashman told him was "broken." Cashman saw Sabathia not just as a stopper, but as a likable unifier who could ease tensions in a clubhouse still trying to find happiness in the demilitarized zone separating Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
Sabathia helped the Yankees win it all in 2009 and scored another $30 million from his bosses last year when he threatened to opt into free agency. So as he walked to the mound Friday night, Sabathia knew he'd been paid for this moment, for this win-or-else proposition that confronts his team every fall.
"That's what I'm here for," he said. "It is what I play the game for."
As great as he was in Game 1, Sabathia had to be greater in this eighth inning of Game 5. The same faceless Orioles who had attached themselves to the Yankees for the final month of the regular season -- "They never went away," Joe Girardi said -- were making one final push, and Sabathia had to keep himself together while keeping Baltimore down.
Robert Andino had chopped his way onto first base to load 'em up, his batted ball bouncing into Sabathia's glove before the ace found himself in the no man's land between the mound and third base. CC threw to the wrong base, second, and it felt like the very Curse of the Andino that had toppled last year's Boston Red Sox was wreaking havoc in the Bronx.
The fans were standing, stomping, chanting Cee-Cee ... Cee-Cee, trying to will the big man home. Sabathia was already good for 106 pitches before he unleashed his most important delivery of the night, a 1-2 slider to Nate McLouth, the guy who had nearly tied the game with a sixth-inning shot to right that either did or didn't glance off the foul pole (the umpires swore it didn't, and somewhere out there, a grown-up Jeffrey Maier surely agreed).
McLouth had no chance, offering the kind of feeble cut that got A-Rod benched on the other side. J.J. Hardy was up next, and Girardi had already decided his ace was a goner if the Baltimore shortstop got on.
Sabathia threw ball one and stepped off the mound. Russell Martin jogged toward him, and so did Jeter and Robinson Cano. CC admitted to being "fired up," to being "all over the place." This was his moment of sudden-death truth.
"He had to dig down deep," Martin said.
"CC wants to be in those situations," Jeter said. "He's not intimidated by anyone or any team."
Sabathia was well aware of the consequences. Girardi had turned the pinch hitting of A-Rod into the unequivocal firing of A-Rod from the starting lineup, and God help the Yankees if they lost this game and series to a clearly inferior opponent.
So Sabathia attacked Hardy with a hard four-seamer taken for a strike, with a nasty changeup that produced a swing and miss, and with a slider that Hardy tapped in the direction of Jeter, a 38-year-old shortstop charging at a 28-year-old pace.
The captain fielded it cleanly, made the throw against his body and pumped his right fist when it beat Hardy to the bag. Sabathia spread his arms wide and let out a scream, and that was that. Buck Showalter's magical, mystery band of believers -- 11-11 against the Yankees entering Game 5 -- had no more left to give.
Already at 111 pitches, Sabathia wanted no part of any dugout huddle with Girardi. "There was no conversation," CC said. "I was going out for the ninth."
Of course he wanted to finish what he started after an uneven regular season defined by elbow and groin injuries that sent him to the disabled list. Sabathia is among the more accountable figures in his sport. Even when his manager tried to blame the plate ump's strike zone for last year's Game 3 loss to Detroit, Sabathia would have none of it. He'd been outpitched by Justin Verlander, and he had no problem saying so.
Sabathia saw a lot of pitchers crumble around him this year, crumble in different ways. Michael Pineda. Mariano Rivera. Joba Chamberlain. Andy Pettitte. Ivan Nova. No, Sabathia wasn't about to put the ninth inning in another man's hand.
"When we need him," Martin said, "he shows up. ... He just shows why he's making a lot of money. He's the man. He's the horse of this team."
Sabathia inspired an ovation when he emerged from the dugout and headed for the hill. He needed only 10 pitches in the ninth to finish off the spent Orioles, 121 in all, and fittingly Matt Wieters ended the series on a benign grounder to the mound. Sabathia threw to Mark Teixeira, and then Martin and the rest of the Yankees ran into his arms.
"You will light up the city, I promise you," Cashman had told CC on his first recruiting visit to Sabathia's home, back when the free agent had serious reservations about pitching in New York and stepping into the Jeter/A-Rod divide.
Sabathia made a prophet of his GM, allowing only four hits and two walks and striking out nine to become the first Yankee in half a century to go the distance in a winner-take-all postseason game. "The older I have gotten," CC said of his ability to corral his emotions, "the better I have got."
Older and better, tougher and smarter. Sabathia was the right Yankee, the only Yankee, to deliver his team to another playoff series with Detroit.
In the end, Sabathia broke an unbreakable underdog. The biggest man made the biggest burden look smaller than a rosin bag.