- Last Updated: 9:16 AM, May 14, 2012
- Posted: 1:26 AM, May 14, 2012
Andy Pettitte headed toward the dugout with one out in the seventh inning and was regaled with a standing ovation, a familiar sound at a strange moment.
It is uncommon for the good citizens of the Yankees Universe — whose standard is generally champions or bums — to salute a starter as he exits with a three-run deficit. But this had an Old-Timer’s Day quality to it; fans honoring memories, not results.
Of course, we know the rules of engagement around here: Either you are pushing the team toward the Canyon of Heroes or you are not. Not much middle ground. Tolerance usually lasts as long as the Knicks in the playoffs. Even as beloved a player as Pettitte acknowledged after his return outing, “I’ll be able to say if this is a success or not in October.”
It was a big-picture thought on a small-picture day. Pettitte recognized this start — his first in a major league game that counted in 573 days — was going to be dissected with CSI-esque fervor. If there were no hiatus between ALCS Game 3 in 2010 and yesterday then Pettitte’s four runs allowed in 6 1/3 innings would blur in the background and the Yankees offense — notably the continuing struggles of Mark Teixeira — would probably be under the unforgiving microscope.
Instead, after a 6-2 Mariner triumph, even Pettitte knew this was a day to “nitpick” his 94 pitches for clues about where he is and where he might be going; if he indeed has the stuff to help the Yanks between here and October.
But how to judge Pettitte? Against his own past? Against a present in which his main competition for the past year and his half has been his children in batting practice?
If you had pinstriped-coated glasses then there were definitely items to like. Head spin-meister Joe Girardi said, “to me it looked as if he didn’t miss a beat.” Pettitte generated 11 of his 18 outs on the ground, inducing the 340th and 341st double plays of his career (15th best in history). He also threw his fastball 87-89 mph or about where it was when he left for his Houston ranch and maintained that velocity throughout, a positive statement about his conditioning.
However, he did give up four runs to a dreadful offense that had mustered three in 14 2/3 innings the previous two days against Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes, whose struggles made the Yankees hungrier to get Pettitte back. Pettitte lacked precision in locating his four-seam fastball in to righties. That robbed the swing-and-miss deception from his trademark cutter, which is designed to look like an inside fastball and then dive out of the zone.
Frustrated without a put-away weapon, Pettitte decided to challenge Justin Smoak with a cutter over the plate in the fourth and the switch-hitter socked his first homer batting righty since June 12, 2011 (87 at-bats). In the sixth, after the Yankees drew to 2-1, Pettitte thought he could sneak a fastball on the outside corner and, instead, allowed a two-run homer to Casper Wells, who had no homers and one RBI.
“I got a little careless with a few pitches and you can’t do that,” Pettitte said. “It is a good wake-up lesson.”
Again, if this came in the fabric of Pettitte’s career, no big deal. But Pettitte turns 40 next month. This is not like 49-year-old Jamie Moyer in Colorado, which has a bit of a sideshow feel to it or 41-year-old Miguel Batista, a fill-in starter with Mike Pelfrey now out for the year and the Mets’ depth challenged in the rotation.
Pettitte, now the majors’ third-oldest starter, returned believing he could recapture his skills — and the Yankees bought in. Now this has always been a pitcher who won not by being overpowering, but with resourcefulness and competitive calm — executing huge pitches even without his best stuff. And after his return to center stage he thought he was on a process toward that in which he would get strong and sharper.
“There is not a question in my mind about how this all going to play out for me,” Pettitte said.
That is the Yankee fairy tale: Hero returns, rediscovers his magic, gets standing ovations for deeds in the present, not memories of the past. On Day 1 back in the majors, he took a loss in the game and a no decision on if the fairy tale will come true.