Commentary

Pettitte to the rescue for Yankees?

The 40-year-old hasn't pitched since June, but he knows all about September

Updated: September 19, 2012, 6:12 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

After 146 games, asking Andy Pettitte to step in and save the Yankees' season because of his success in past Octobers feels a bit like asking Reggie Jackson to bail out the offense based on a great day he had in a World Series played 35 years ago.

And yet if there is one pitcher the Yankees can probably count on to remain steady through this final stretch of games, and whatever lies beyond, it is Pettitte -- even at 40 years old and with a repertoire that these days is more Freddy Garcia than Whitey Ford.

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireYankees fans will be delighted to see Andy Pettitte back on the mound Tuesday night.

The reason is simple.

"I don't feel pressure. I really don't," Pettitte said in the Yankees' clubhouse on Sunday. "I know I'm going to go out there, hope I can get in a good rhythm, have my command and throw the ball well. If I don't -- If I'm walking guys, if my command's not good -- I'm going to get hit around. That's just the way it is."

Pettitte is not a boastful guy, just realistic. Unlike a shocking number of athletes who make a living playing games, some of them for very high stakes, Pettitte understands that when you come down to it, one game is the same as the next, whether it is the one he will pitch Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium -- a regular-season game against the Toronto Blue Jays, who are playing out the string -- or the one the Yankees are hoping he will eventually pitch, Game 3 of the ALDS in early October.

He will either do his job or he won't, pitch his game or not, and no amount of fretting over it will make the slightest bit of difference except in a negative way.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Pettitte recalled "having a hard time swallowing out there" when Joe Torre handed him the ball for Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. But 42 postseason games and 263 postseason innings later, Pettitte now looks forward to the challenge.

"A lot of experience and a lot of years past has helped me to be able to really handle it out there," he said. "Of course, you're not going to be good sometimes, but as far as mentally, I just feel like I'm not going to lose my mind out there."

Plenty of pitchers have caved in big spots because they allowed their minds to linger too long on the magnitude of their task -- think David Phelps in Baltimore last weekend. But how many have failed because they approached a "big" game with the same mindset they bring to every game?

That is one thing the Yankees can count on from Pettitte on Tuesday night, and in Game 3 against whomever the ALDS opponent turns out to be -- if the season ended today, it would be the Chicago White Sox -- provided the Yankees get that far.

The remaining schedule seems to indicate that they will. And if so, Pettitte is expected to be a major reason why.

Assuming the Yankees remain on regular rotation for the rest of the season, Pettitte would start four times before the postseason begins, including the season finale against the Red Sox on Oct. 3.

That would put him in line for a Division Series start on Oct. 8 -- which is the date of Game 3, assuming the Yankees don't finish with the best record in the AL, in which case he would be on track to start Game 2.

In any case, the Yankees are banking on Pettitte's past, his all-time best 19-10 record in the postseason and 3.83 ERA, to provide a measure of October stability that still may be lacking once you get past CC Sabathia.

"I expect Andy to be Andy and to compete like he always does," manager Joe Girardi said. "The only unfortunate thing is he's not built up to 100 pitches -- if you get five good innings out of him and about 70 pitches, I mean that would be great."

Pettitte has had a strange comeback season so far -- a belated beginning on May 13, and an unscheduled 11 weeks off after suffering a broken ankle on June 27. The glimpse we got of him in between -- nine starts, a 3-3 record, a 3.22 ERA and better command of his pitches than anyone could have hoped to see -- was a tantalizing taste of what Pettitte could provide to this team in October.

Now the question is, can he pick up where he left off?

"We think so," Pettitte said. "I haven't faced anyone in a game situation yet other than a simulated game, but I know that [pitching coach Larry Rothschild] and the hitters are saying the ball's coming out good. It feels like it's coming out good. We're going to find out Tuesday night. I'm hoping my velocity is decent. Obviously, I don't need a whole lot of velocity. I just need my command to be there. Hopefully, that will be there."

Velocity, of course, has never been Pettitte's game. And this year his four-seam fastball averaged about 88 mph -- the same as Garcia's -- and his cutter and slider about 82 -- also about the same as Garcia's.

And like with Garcia, there's a lot of sleight of hand involved in Pettitte's success. But at least in the limited sample we saw of him this season, he was a lot more successful in getting his off-speed stuff over the plate and being forced to throw his fastball in bad counts. As a result, he has the lowest opponents' batting average, .224, and lowest WHIP, 1.09, of any starter on the staff.

This season, his slider has developed into by far his most effective pitch -- its downward trajectory inducing an even higher percentage of ground balls than his cutter, which used to be his go-to delivery. He'll still go to the cutter with two strikes more often than not. But when he needs a ground ball, Pettitte has come to rely on his slider.

"I feel like I was in a really good place when I got hurt, as far as being aggressive in the strike zone," he said. "I was throwing all my pitches for strikes, and I'm hoping to get right back into there. I know how I want to attack hitters."

There's certainly reason for optimism because of Pettitte's mindset and well-documented competitiveness -- he was the only Yankee who publicly opined that their recent skid made the season "exciting" -- but also reason for doubt.

Already once in 2012 he has defied all expectations, except perhaps his own, about what a 40-year-old pitcher who sat out an entire season could accomplish after a somewhat rushed comeback.

And there is a rushed aspect to this one as well, since Pettitte never pitched in a single minor league rehab game, having to settle for simulated games (i.e., glorified batting practice against a couple of his teammates).

But the same way he rolled off his couch and pitched virtually as if he had never left in May and June, the Yankees are hoping -- no, expecting -- that Pettitte will be able to do it in September and hopefully October.

"Even though I've been out for a couple of months, I know exactly what's expected out there and I'm ready for it," he said. "I'm looking forward to it being a battle, and I feel like I'm ready for that physically and mentally."

In what has become a 16-game season, it is now up to Andy Pettitte to give the Yankees a fighting chance in four of them.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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