Andy Pettitte deserved a night like last night. A 17-year veteran in the league, Pettitte honored the game by competing viciously hard his entire career, by spilling out his guts on the mound every time he pitched. Pettitte is one of those players – others being David Ortiz and Jeff Bagwell – who the game has forgiven for taking steroids based on his otherwise sparkling representation of baseball. The MLB, you get the feeling, would quickly send Pettitte to an Alternate Sports Universe as one of the league’s ambassadors…and he has committed the game’s ultimate sin. There’s certainly something to be said for that.
The end for Pettitte, though, was obscured by the end for Mariano Rivera, whose goodbye to baseball set a new standard for legendary farewells. This never bothered Pettitte, who was happy to ride off into the sunset on a smaller horse behind his old friend, but there was a sense of neglect in the way the game was sending off one of its most appreciated players. Sure, the Yankees held a small ceremony in his honor on Wednesday and included him – almost by obligation – in Mo’s retirement party, but Pettitte never really had a night of his own, one final chance to absorb the spotlight and play one-more-song!
Finally, back home in Houston, on the penultimate day of the season, he had the stage to himself. He had the night.
As he has always done, Andy rose to the occasion. The biggest moments have brought out the best in him since 1995, when he kick-started a sterling postseason career with a 7-inning effort against the Mariners in the ALDS. He earned a no-decision that night but would go on to win 19 games in October to establish himself as one of the best Big Game pitchers in the league. And though last night was an insignificant game by all outward measures, in the narrative of Pettitte’s career it meant more than the standings could ever tell.
So Pettitte, in vintage form, battled the Astros all night long, scattering five hits over nine innings for his first complete game in seven years. It took him 116 pitches to do it, and how couldn’t it have? If Pettitte was going to weave one more gem on a Major League mound, it was going to be in the way he has always done it: with his brim low over his eyes – his gaze unyielding – and his heart on his sleeve. He threw each one of those 116 pitches like they were his last, and that’s not because they actually were. No, Pettitte emptied the tank every single time he took the hill in the past 17 years, leaving nothing but the rosin bag and the rubber on the mound as he ran off it. So last night was simply instinct.
And instincts never die. He used the cutter, the slider, the fastball and the big, slow curve, and he used them masterfully. He induced two double play groundballs to help him escape jams when he needed to, pounding his glove each time in fiery approval. At 41 years old, after 531 Major League appearances, these games mean as much to him now as they did in 1995, 3,316 innings ago. It’s this fierce desire to win, this self-sacrificial approach to the game, that endeared Pettitte to his teammates of 17 different seasons and earned him unanimous respect around the league. That’s why the Houston fans were cheering their local hero on against their hometown team. And that’s why the Astros themselves, most of whom have never played with Pettitte, rose to the top step of the dugout to applaud him – to salute him – after he recorded the final out.
With the win, Pettitte brought his season record to 11-11. He is now the only pitcher in the history of baseball who has played for 15 or more seasons without once having a losing record.
His category. His record.