- Last Updated: 11:04 PM, June 6, 2012
- Posted: 1:01 AM, June 6, 2012
Maybe Andy Pettitte’s one-year sabbatical couldn’t be attributed primarily to love of his family. Or to a dimmed competitive flame.
Maybe the crafty lefty just wanted us, finally, to really appreciate him.
Nah, that isn’t his style. But Pettitte, nine days short of his 40th birthday, is generating buzz like never before — here in the bonus round of his career.
Behind another stellar Pettitte outing and a Russell Martin grand slam last night at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees cruised to a 7-0 victory over the Rays. Tampa Bay’s starter “Big Game” James Shields may own the cool nickname, yet Pettitte has been pitching big games in the major leagues since 1995. In this one, which pulled the Yankees (30-24) within a half-game of the American League East leading-Rays (31-24) and Orioles (31-24), Pettitte allowed just two hits and two walks and struck out 10 over 7 1⁄3 innings.
“Surprising. Amazing,” said Hideki Matsui, Pettitte’s old Yankees teammate and the Rays’ cleanup hitter, through his interpreter, Roger Kahlon. “But at the same time, you kind of understand that because of the intensity that he has, the belief that he has in himself.”
“I don’t think you ever forget how to do it,” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said, “as long as you’re not too old to do it.”
Because he grew up in the Yankees’ organization and has pitched the bulk of his career here, Pettitte knows about buzz and being able to work under the radar, relatively speaking. Studs like Roger Clemens, David Cone, Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia and colorful dynamos like Orlando Hernandez and David Wells have taken turns overshadowing him. Pettitte bolted to Houston in December 2003, only to see Clemens immediately join him and become the Astros’ top ticket draw for the subsequent three seasons.
If this ever fazed Pettitte, he did a superb job of hiding it. Nevertheless, circumstances have intersected so that the man who could be called “Mr. Game 2,” after starting the second game of 11 Yankees’ playoff runs (1995 through 2003, 2007 and 2010) stands out as the most celebrated pitcher on this uneven 2012 staff.
He shocked the baseball world with his March comeback for $2.5 million, which seemed like a Yankees move of excess. Until Michael Pineda went down with right shoulder surgery and Freddy Garcia bowed out of the rotation due to incompetence. With Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova all inconsistent, bringing back Pettitte seems like the best seven-figure investment in Yankees history.
The man himself, always humble, explains his revival as just one of those things. Never mind that he’s now baseball’s oldest starting pitcher, thanks to Colorado’s jettisoning of 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, and pitching like a number two starting pitcher in baseball’s toughest division.
“When I left [after 2010], I probably felt like I was good as I have ever been,” Pettitte said. “… As long as I continue to stay healthy and have some velocity on my pitches, I feel like I’m going to be how I was when I left. You don’t really know what to expect when you come back, but I’m obviously pleasantly surprised so far that I’ve been like I’ve been.”
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said Pettitte “didn’t have as much velocity,” although according to BrooksBaseball.net’s PitchFX data, Pettitte’s four-seam fastball averaged 88.4 mph and his two-seamer 88.1. He began the night averaging 87.3 mph on his fastball, according to FanGraphs.com. Pettitte attributed an improved two-seamer to a tip that Rothschild gave him, and his other pitches — cutter, curveball and changeup — were effective, too.
And then there’s the aura. Perceived or not, his teammates believe in it, like they once believed in the likes of Clemens and Cone.
“I’m surprised more by his attitude and his intensity than his pitching,” Martin said. “I feel on days he pitches, he gives a different energy to the team.”
It’s the energy of the guy you can’t wait to see pitch again. It’s a vibe that has eluded Pettitte until now.
It’s making the Yankees feel much better, for sure, about this up-and-down season.