Central to the Yankees’ hot start this season – a burst out of the gates that kept the team above water through the sluggish months to follow – was the turned-young-again pitching of Andy Pettitte. And central to the team’s resurgence this August – a stretch of 13 wins in 17 games that has thrust the Yanks back into the playoff race – has been the same implausible success from the same 41-year-old southpaw.
Pettitte, whose 2012 season was cut short by injury, decided to return this year to finish what he had started. He threw only 75 innings in 2012 while pitching to an ERA of 2.87 – his lowest since 2005 – so the ageless lefty was short on neither energy nor motivation heading into Spring Training.
His vigor was quickly proven in April when Andy won his first three starts, allowing just five runs over 22-plus innings. After a May 11th win against the Royals – his last full start before going down with a shoulder injury five days later – Pettitte stood at 4-2 with a 3.83 ERA. And the Yankees, winners of five straight, had followed their Old Commander’s lead to a 23-13 record and first place in the A.L. East.
Then reality struck. On May 17th Pettitte was sent to the 15-day D.L. with a strained left trapezius, and the Yankees, slowly but surely, stopped scoring runs. With their invulnerable Captain already sidelined until July and their Captain in Residence now felled by injury as well, the Yankees were a rudderless team. By the time Andy returned in early June, the club had fallen 2.5 games behind the Red Sox for the division lead.
The next two months, for an old team and an old pitcher, wouldn’t get any easier. From June 3rd to August 7th, the Yankees would post a 25-31 record and fall to fourth place in the A.L. East, 11.5 games behind the Red Sox. Pettitte, meanwhile, would win just three times in 12 starts, due in large part to a bloated ERA of 4.45. By the time the swoon was over, the Yankees raft was all but sunk and Pettitte’s furious paddling was only bringing on more water.
To most onlookers, it was the inevitable fate for a team without punch and for a pitcher who had thrown too many over his 18-year career. Though theirs was a beguiling spring, a charming display of defiance spoiled only by the pinstripes they wore, the Yankees’ summer was disheartening at best. Any magic the team had found in April and May quickly wore off, and Pettitte’s fountain of youth had, from all appearances, dried up.
It wasn’t a lack of fire that saw Andy struggle. It never is with him. At 41, the man still competes with life-or-death intensity. At the heart of his waning success was simply time. Entering this season, Pettitte had thrown over 3,000 innings and pitched in more than 500 games, which is a bit like…nothing else at all. Pitching for that long takes an unfathomable toll on the arm, and the mere fact that he was still out there for the Yanks, still nodding yes to the sign and firing away, is remarkable in itself.
So that fact that, after 130 more innings this year, he is 2-0 in his past three starts with an ERA of 1.06? Well, where there is no analogy there is no adjective. Pettitte, incredibly, has turned back the clock once more, reaching a little deeper into what must be a bottomless well of guts, heart and mental fiber. Just when it seemed he was done for good, he has rallied with gusto, Andy the Competitor refusing to let Andy the Human off the hook.
And the same can be said of the Yankees. At 57-56 – just a Hiroki Kuroda hair above .500 – on August 7th, the Pinstripes were written off. But in line with their Old Commander, the Yankees have roared back with a vengeance, winning their past four series to gain 4.5 games in the Wild Card race and 5.5 games in the A.L. East. Boy, are they alive now.
The latest win, and the team’s fifth in a row, came yesterday at the expense of the Blue Jays, who finished 0-10 this year at Yankee Stadium. In many ways, it was a win out of the season’s first half playbook: the Yanks tallied more runs than hits, were outhit two-to-one, but stole the game on the back of a strong pitching performance.
The pitcher, of course, was Andy Pettitte, who threw six innings of one-run ball on a day Joe Girardi desperately needed him to do so. After exhausting the bullpen through the first three games of the series, the manager needed length out of Pettitte and Pettitte delivered. It was another gritty outing for Andy, who worked around three walks and teased Toronto’s hitters all afternoon with pitches just out of the strike zone. The crafty veteran he now is, Pettitte doesn’t so much pitch to his strengths as he does to hitters’ weaknesses.
That’s guts, heart and mental fiber all in one afternoon.
With 38 games left for the Yankees, Pettitte figures to get about seven more starts. If he and the Yankees can bookend this season the way they appear to be, everything else in between will be quickly forgotten.