Commentary

When all's dandy, down goes Andy

Pinstripes' problems only minor -- until 'bad day for left-handers' strikes Bronx

Updated: June 28, 2012, 3:06 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- As Joe Girardi slumped forward on the edge of the bench, he pressed elbows against knees and locked his eyes on the littered floor between his feet. In the dugout shadows, all but doubled over, Girardi was hardly striking the pose of a man running the best team in his sport.

He looked more like a guy facing a sudden-death proposition before the end of June.

Andy Pettitte had just hobbled off the field in the fifth inning on Wednesday, a few hours after CC Sabathia had hobbled onto the DL, and when Girardi figured right then and there he was having as bad a day as a 45-28 manager could have, guess what?

He figured wrong.

The Cleveland Indians would ultimately cooperate and hand Girardi one more victory to stuff inside his beloved binder, but the winners couldn't possibly feel like, you know, winners. The prospect of enjoying anything about this sunshiny matinee died the moment Steve Donohue, New York Yankees trainer, appeared around the sixth inning to tell the manager that Pettitte had a fractured fibula in his left leg.

"Is he telling me a fib?" Girardi thought to himself. "What is he doing here?"

If the manager felt like killing the messenger, at least figuratively, he had his reasons.

"I never imagined that's what it was," Girardi said.

Even under a clear blue sky, the fates were raining all over the Yankees' next scheduled parade. The Yanks had arrived as the certified beasts of the AL East, as a safe divisional bet to avoid the one-game wild-card shootout nobody with a $200 million payroll wants to play.

Everybody in baseball has problems, but the Yankees' were the prototypical good problems to have. They hit too many home runs -- talk about a felony -- and they stood no chance this year of returning Mariano Rivera to what stands among the best bullpens going, with or without Mo.

"When I came to the park," Girardi said, "I felt pretty good."

The Sabathia news soured his mood, but a muscle strain that costs an ace a couple of starts isn't cause to forfeit the balance of the season.

A Casey Kotchman liner that shatters a bone in Pettitte's lower leg and knocks him out for at least two months?

That hurts a lot more than the fracture itself.

"If you want to be the best," GM Brian Cashman said, "you have to deal with it."

Pettitte
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesLosing Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia on the same day made for a bittersweet sweep of the Tribe.

The Yankees have been pretty good at dealing with it over the years, whether it was Alex Rodriguez going down for this or that, or Derek Jeter wrecking his shoulder on opening night in Toronto in 2003. John Flaherty, the new backup catcher, remembered how amazingly calm the Yankees were in the face of that disaster, remembered how one teammate in particular responded as if Jeter had just fouled a ball off his toe.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Flaherty said, "but Andy Pettitte was just sitting there without emotion like, 'We'll find a way. It's all good.'"

So there was Pettitte on crutches Wednesday, wearing a gray T-shirt and blue shorts and a black boot on his left foot, assuring everyone around his locker that it's all good, that the Yankees will find a way.

He sounded more hopeful than he ever did fielding questions on the Roger Clemens case. Of his forced summer vacation, Pettitte said, "Maybe it will help me down the stretch."

Assuming there is a stretch, of course.

At 40, Pettitte did not fracture his leg the way most men his age would fracture theirs. He wasn't skiing with old college buddies, or playing pickup basketball with a motley crew of weekend warriors, or cleaning the leaves out of his second-story gutters.

He was busy mowing down a major league ballclub, striking out seven of the first 15 batters he faced. Slowly, surely, the storyline was taking form. Old Man Pettitte was making good on his comeback all over again, assuming the role of ace on the day his team lost its one and only to the DL.

But then Kotchman turned a 1-1 pitch into a laser up the middle, one that smashed into the lefty's shin and headed for the third-base line. Pettitte tried going for the loose ball before he crashed and burned, ending up in the grass on all fours.

Everyone scrambled out to him, and Pettitte would get up and throw some warm-up pitches through a fair amount of pain. He'd taken a lifetime's worth of hard bouncers to the shin, so he thought he'd rub some dirt on it and continue on.

"It just got me in a good spot," Pettitte told himself, "and I'll just get on the mound and it eventually will go away here if I take enough time."

The crowd cheered when Girardi, Donohue and the rest exited stage left. But as soon as Pettitte released his next pitch to Lou Marson, "I just had an awful lot of pain running all the way down to my foot," he said.

He winced, buckled, and surrendered to the inevitable. Girardi came out to get Pettitte, and neither had a clue the Yankees would end up dealing with far more than a deep bruise.

Girardi looked beaten as he sat in the dugout, anyway, with pitching coach Larry Rothschild at his side. It was just past lunchtime and the manager had already lost two starters who had combined to win 428 major league games.

"Bad day for left-handers today," Girardi would say.

A worse day for the manager and the fans. Cashman said he expected Pettitte would be out for two months, and when asked if two months for a 40-year-old could grow into something worse, something season threatening, the GM said through a smile, "Thanks for bringing that up."

Cashman said he was assured by Chris Ahmad, team physician, that Pettitte would return before the postseason. Cashman also repeated Pettitte's stated hope that the layoff would leave him fresher for what the GM called "meaningful games in October."

Only there's too much baseball to be played between now and then to cast this in anything other than a devastating light. Pettitte had made the Yankees a better rotation and team, and who knows if he'll ever regain his form when (or if) he returns.

So no, this isn't a fake problem like fretting over a reliance on home runs. This is a real problem, and one that could leave the Yankees looking worse than Andy Pettitte's leg.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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