After pitching an absolute gem in tonight’s 4-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds, Andy Pettitte talked about the inevitable fear that crept into the back of his mind when he decided to make his comeback. Even though he’s been a borderline Hall of Fame pitcher in the past, there was no way knowing if he still had it until he got onto the mound and faced big league hitters.
“I felt good, there’s no doubt about it,” Pettitte said. “Everything was working. You try to figure out what you were doing last game, and I was having trouble with my cutter and my four-seamer. I felt like I was kind of forcing it. I didn’t think that I might have been a little uptight last game, but I just feel like I wasn’t quite as relaxed as I needed to be when you’re trying to make pitches. It was good to get in a good rhythm.”
The 39-year-old left-hander exceeded even his own wildest expectations tonight, getting through eight scoreless innings while allowing just four hits and one walk and striking out an uncharacteristically high nine batters to earn his first major-league win since July 8, 2010. Amazingly, this marked the first start of Pettitte’s career in which he pitched at least eight scoreless innings with four hits or fewer and at least nine strikeouts.
No one may have seen this coming, but Joe Girardi called it before the game — well, sort of.
“In the pregame Suzyn (Waldman) said, ‘What do you want out of Andy today?’ ” Girardi recalled. “I said, ‘Can I be greedy?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’ I said, ‘I want eight innings of shutout baseball.’ ”
Girardi got just what he wanted.
• While Pettitte gave the Yankees a quality effort in his first start on Sunday, pitching into the seventh inning, it didn’t have the same easy feel that tonight’s start had. He didn’t have all of his pitches working in that outing, but that was not the case tonight. “The adjustments come whenever you’re unable to do some stuff and you have to figure out a way to get guys out,” Pettitte said. “I was able to throw everything that I wanted tonight to both sides of the plate, so that makes it a lot easier.”
• The amount of pitches that Pettitte has in his arsenal is what makes him so effective. By my count, he throws a standard four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, curveball, changeup and slider. That’s a lot to think about when you’re at the plate. “He’s got more weapons to go to, that’s the bottom line,” Girardi said. “When I caught him years and years ago, it was fastball, cutter and curveball. He had a changeup, but we just didn’t throw it much. But he didn’t throw a back door his cutter, and he didn’t throw a sinker, so he’s got many more weapons to go to. Hitters can’t sit necessarily on the ball coming into them, so I think he is better.”
• Catcher Chris Stewart was asked when he could tell that Pettitte was on tonight: “In his bullpen before the game. He was throwing his pitches where he needed to, all of his pitches were breaking well and he was locating his offspeed in specific spots.”
• Pettitte is not usually known as a strikeout pitcher, but he whiffed nine batters tonight — eight on swings. He talked about his cutter being especially sharp, which is the pitch that generated the most swing-and-misses.
• Pettitte also displayed pinpoint control tonight, throwing 78 of his 115 pitches for strikes. The pitch count seemed a bit high, which is why I was surprised to see him come out for the eighth. It’s a long season, and after taking a year off, the Yankees are going to want to be careful about not pushing him to far in May. “It’s not something I want to do on a consistent basis,” Girardi said. “He looked like his stuff was still really good. I know he has to go in five days, and then he gets an extra days rest, and I thought about that. And I talked to him – I looked him in the eyes.”
• Pettitte also talked about the fact that, while he doesn’t think he has the best pure stuff in the league, he’s always felt that he has an edge when it comes to what’s going on between his ears. Girardi concurred. “It has a lot to do with it,” he said. “Focus is taking one pitch at a time and making that pitch. Something goes wrong behind you or somebody gets a base hit, it’s about letting it go, and Andy has always been really good at that. … That’s an art.”
• A perfect example of that came in the first inning. Pettitte struck out leadoff batter Zack Cozart, but the ball got by Stewart, who made a throwing error to first base. Pettitte responded with three consecutive outs — two via strikeout. “You never want to start off the game like that,” Stewart said. “He bailed me out, luckily.”
• While Pettitte’s performance stole the show, he bailed out a Yankees offense that continues to struggle with runners in scoring position. The Yankees are now hitless in their last 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position. “Some of it is luck, and I think it’s a skill,” Girardi said. “The skill part is being able to relax and not go outside of who you are. The luck part is hitting it hard and not hitting it at somebody.”
• The biggest letdown for the Yankees’ offense came in the bottom of the sixth. Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson led off with back-to-back singles, which was followed by a walk to Robinson Cano to load the bases with no outs. An offense as talented as the Yankees has to plate a run there, but they somehow managed to avoid scoring any. Jeter was called out on a very close play at home for the first out, which was followed by a fielder’s choice from Raul Ibanez and a pop out to short from Nick Swisher.
• The Yankees finally added to their 1-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth, but none of the hits came with runners in scoring position. Cano absolutely hammered a solo shot into the RF bleachers, and then Ibanez nailed a two-run blast after an A-Rod single to make it 4-0. “Being able to put a couple more up there was huge,” Ibanez said. “It was nice to go into the ninth with a four-run lead. Andy pitched his tail off.”
• I’ll give Reds manager Dusty Baker the final word on Pettitte’s performance: “He must have been doing something real good while he was retired,” Baker said. “He didn’t look like (he just came out of retirement) at all. He looked as sharp as I’ve ever seen him.”
Associated Press photos