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Still dandy, Andy is Yankees' April ace

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Heading out for the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday afternoon, Andy Pettitte felt strong and confident and in command of all his pitches.

To the 37-year-old veteran of 16 major league seasons with 232 wins to his credit, that could only mean one thing: Trouble dead ahead.

"I felt nice and relaxed, like I had everything going for me," Pettitte said. "And when I feel like that, everything usually goes south."

Sure enough, the Angels hit rockets in that third inning. A leadoff single by Mike Napoli, a rifle shot into left. A single by Brandon Wood, same spot. A rope by Erick Aybar and a laser beam by Bobby Abreu. All in rapid succession.

And yet, a funny thing happened to the Angels on their way to home plate. None of them got there. Napoli, maybe thinking Johnny Damon was still playing left field for the Yankees, got the bright idea to try for third on Wood's single. Brett Gardner, charging on contact, gunned him down for the first out. Aybar's liner, hit as hard as it was, was just low enough for Robinson Cano to reach up and pull it out of the air. Abreu's single was hit too hard for Wood to go any further than second.

And Torii Hunter, batting with two runners on and two out, watched an 89 MPH fastball, perfectly placed at the intersection of knees and inside corner, thud into Francisco Cervelli's mitt for strike three.

Inning over, threat over, game over.

Having weathered his one and only storm of the day, Pettitte sailed along through the eighth inning, just two more hits, striking out eight, and most important, walking no one. In a game in which Joe Girardi sent out a patchwork lineup that delivered seven runs and in which Cano had four hits and Gardner three, Pettitte easily turned in the performance of the day.

And in a Yankee season that has already seen two starters nearly throw no-hitters, Pettitte so far has been the best pitcher on the staff.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't even sure he wanted to pitch again this season, and judging by his history will not be sure he wants to pitch again next season, even if he continues to throw the baseball the way he did in the Yankees 7-1 victory Saturday, Pettitte's third of the young season.

In a starting rotation that boasts CC Sabathia, the $23 million lefty, and Phil Hughes, the bargain basement phenom, not to mention A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez, who finished fourth in the voting for last year's NL Cy Young, Pettitte has emerged as the stealth ace of the Yankee staff, the guy who's the easiest to overlook and so far, the most difficult to beat.

"The last two times he's pitched against us, that's about as good as we've
ever seen him," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's taking a sip of the fountain of youth or something, because he's throwing the ball very well."

To which Girardi, Scioscia's Yankee counterpart, replied, "That's something I'm going to have to ask him because if that's what he's found, I'm going to have to look for it, too."

But to Pettitte, there is nothing mystical going on here. When he feels too strong, he throws too hard, and when he throws too hard, his sinker doesn't sink and his cutter no longer cuts. They just sit there, begging to be hit.

"That inning, everything I was throwing kinda came to the middle of the plate," he said, "They easily coulda turned that into a big inning, but they gave me one out with Napoli at third, which was huge, and then the line drive to Robbie, and then I got a call on a pitch to Torii that might have been a little bit inside. After that, our offense scored some runs and I was able to settle in a little."

That was just typical Pettitte-speak, self-effacing and even self-minimizing. Or, as Girardi put it, "That's the way Andy likes it, to fly under the radar, beat himself up a little bit, and get wins."

But in truth, not even the notoriously self-critical Pettitte could find much to pummel himself over aside from the third inning and the good fortune that helped him survive it. "I felt great," he admitted. "I feel like my location's been really good, I'm really mixing my pitches up good, moving the ball in and out, and changing speeds. Anytime you can do that you're gonna be successful."

Despite having had an abbreviated spring due to two rainouts, Pettitte has gone out four times this season, and come back with an outstanding line each time.

Even more encouraging, he has gotten better each time out. In Boston the third game of the season, he threw six innings of one-run ball. Six days later against the Angels at Yankee Stadium, it was six shutout innings. Last time out, he got through eight full innings, allowing just two runs. Saturday, it was eight innings and just one run.

Who knows what he will do his next time out? Complete game shutout? He hasn't had one of those since 2006, but the way he is pitching right now, anything seems possible. Said Hunter: "He was like the Andy Pettitte of old, when he was young."

Or as Girardi said, "Andy can be a devastating pitcher."

Just so long as he's not too strong.

GAME NOTES

Due to Nick Johnson's lower back soreness, Girardi had to shuffle the Yankee lineup significantly, batting Gardner in Johnson's usual spot, the two-hole, and using Alex Rodriguez as the DH. That necessitated using Ramiro Pena at 3rd, and, with Jorge Posada getting the day game off after a night game, inserting Francisco Cervelli at catcher. Facing Joel Pineiro, the sinkerballer who handcuffed the Yankees in the Bronx 10 days ago, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. Instead, the makeshift lineup treated the Angels starter like Joel Pinata. Gardner had three hits, including a triple immediately after rising from a knockdown pitch. Pena made a diving stop of a line drive, and Cervelli drove in two runs with a fourth-inning single. Cano continues to thrive in the fifth spot, scoring three runs and getting four hits, which could have been five if not for a nice play on a comebacker by Pineiro. ... Girardi said Johnson's back, which he had reported as "stiff" before the game, had degenerated to "sore" by the end of the game, despite a session in the whirlpool. Johnson pinpointed the pain as in the area of his buttocks, caused by a bad swing during batting practice on Friday. Girardi said he hoped Johnson would be available for Tuesday's game in Baltimore.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.