"I knew he was a good pitcher, but I didn't know that his heart was as big as he is," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said of the 6-foot-7, 290-pound left-hander. "I think that's the difference between any other acquisition in the past that people can talk about."
Sabathia finally conquered the Cubs in his third try, tossing a complete game for a 3-1 victory on Sunday to clinch Milwaukee's first playoff berth in 26 years. Sabathia was 2 years old when the Brewers last made the postseason. He held Chicago to one unearned run and four hits while striking out seven in his 10th complete game of the season and seventh in a Milwaukee uniform.
"That's one of the greatest performances of all time," acting manager Dale Sveum said. "To go on three days' rest three times, I don't know if anyone has done that. Not in our era."
On July 7, Melvin relinquished prized hitting prospect Matt LaPorta for a half-season loan in Sabathia, who hits free agency in the offseason. The Brewers squeezed every ounce of energy out of their prized rental. Sabathia threw 334 pitches the last nine days, starting three straight times on three days' rest. It's an astonishing feat.
"I think anybody in here healthy enough would have done the same thing," Sabathia said. "Everybody in here, their main goal is to win. That's all I try to do."
Sabathia (11-2 with the Brewers) has given so much to the new club since being shipped from Cleveland. He's ready to give a lot more in October.
"Until we win a championship, we still have a long way to go," he said. "But this is big for this franchise and this city. We'll just keep going hard and see what happens."
The Cubs' lone run came in the second on an RBI groundout set up by a Prince Fielder error. After that, Sabathia mowed down the next 10 batters and didn't let anyone reach scoring position the rest of the game.
It ended with a 4-6-3 double play. Sabathia let out a roar, an inaudible one given the decibel level already engulfing the closed ballpark. Teammates met him with a group bear hug on the third-base side of the mound.
The scene was fitting, given how much the franchise has centered on the lefty to deliver the last three months.
"I'm right in the middle of it," Sabathia said. "This stadium was electric today. It was a lot of fun to be out there today, and it's fun to be a part of this big moment."
Sunday cemented the Sabathia steal in trading lore with four other playoff-push pickups. In 1982, the Brewers acquired Don Sutton from the Astros for prospects Kevin Bass and Mike Madden. The veteran right-hander went 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA in seven starts to earn Milwaukee the American League Championship.
In 1984, the Cubs grabbed Rick Sutcliffe from the Indians. Sutcliffe went 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA and seven complete games after the deal, helping Chicago reach the National League Championship Series.
Three years later, the Tigers gave up a Minor Leaguer named John Smoltz for 36-year-old starter Doyle Alexander, who proceeded to pitch the best of his career to get the Tigers into the playoffs. Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts, including three shutouts.
In 1998, the Astros rode midseason pickup Randy Johnson to the playoffs. The ex-Mariner dominated his new league with a 10-1 record and a 1.28 ERA.
The four great stories didn't have happy endings. The 1982 Brewers, 1984 Cubs, 1987 Tigers and 1998 Astros were eliminated in the playoffs, with only the Brewers reaching the World Series.
Could this turn out to be the greatest pitching trade in Major League history?
"I think the Red Sox traded a pitcher named Babe Ruth," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "That turned out pretty good for the Yankees."
The Yankees held onto Ruth for 15 seasons. Sabathia's stay surely won't be that long. His contract runs out after this season. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.
"If there's a better pitcher in the Major Leagues, I don't know who it is," owner Mark Attanasio said. "He's the best pitcher in baseball. We're going to need all the money in the world to sign him, he's so good."
Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.