Commentary

Pettitte powers up for home stretch

Bombers lefty begins new spring training in heat of September pennant race

Updated: September 20, 2012, 2:55 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It is probably fitting that Andy Pettitte returned in such a strange setting. When he took the mound for his highly anticipated return at Yankee Stadium after nearly three months, a rainout had zapped the electricity.

With the postponement Tuesday night, the seats were mostly empty Wednesday afternoon when Pettitte fired his first big league pitch since June 27, an 88 mph strike.

"You could hear people talking," Pettitte said with his Texas drawl after the Yankees' 4-2 win over the Blue Jays. "I was just trying to focus."

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
Brad Penner/US PresswireAndy Pettitte hopes to pitch the Bronx Bombers well into another October.

Pettitte is stepping into the middle of a strange world. His club is desperately trying to hold off infamy and the relentless Baltimore Orioles. Pettitte is just trying to come back from his fractured fibula with a pitch count that is still in the 70s.

He is basically facing spring training in the heat of a September pennant race.

All in all Wednesday, Pettitte's five scoreless innings were a success mostly because he came through it healthy. Facing a shoddy Toronto lineup, Pettitte escaped trouble in three of his five innings. He never did feel perfectly right, not liking the way his cutter, change or curve left his hand.

"There is no doubt about it that I was a little off," Pettitte said. "My command was a little bit off."

Pettitte is 40 years old and has made just 31 starts in the past three years. He said his fibula is fine, but his legs do not feel strong enough yet. Nearly three months on the disabled list can do that.

Pettitte's next start will be in Minnesota on Monday. He will push his pitch count from the 75 he threw Wednesday to around 90. There is no place he would rather be, trying to lead the Yankees to more glory.

"I love pitching," Pettitte said.

The Yankees need Pettitte to find his command quickly because, despite their soft schedule, there aren't a lot of encouraging signs these days.

Against the very hittable Henderson Alvarez, the Yankees put up three runs in the first and then took the rest of the afternoon off. David Robertson, not nearly as dependable as last year, entered with a three-run lead in the eighth and had to call for a lifeline with two outs.

Rafael Soriano, picking up the ball with the tying and go-ahead runs on, protected the lead and earned save No. 41, a four-out job.

The Blue Jays couldn't take advantage of Pettitte's less-than-normal command. Toronto put out a terrible lineup so it was impossible to fully judge Pettitte's effectiveness. Besides Brett Lawrie's .278 average, every Blue Jay was hitting .243 or worse at the start of the game.

Still, the Blue Jays picked up four hits, a couple of walks and threatened Pettitte, putting runners on first and third in the second, third and fourth innings. Pettitte did what he has been doing over most of the past two decades -- he cropped his hat down low, peered over his glove and escaped.

In the second and the fourth, Pettitte took advantage of the Jays' No. 9 hitter, Anthony Gose, batting .221 coming into the game. Using a couple of cutters, Pettitte forced Gose to ground out each time, leaving a total of four runners on. It was either vintage Pettitte or vintage Gose.

Pettitte and Derek Jeter, who returned to the infield on Wednesday night, are trying to lead this Yankee club into the playoffs. They are the Expendables of the Core Four, attempting to produce one more blockbuster.

Jorge Posada is retired. Mariano Rivera injured his knee in May, leaving Pettitte and Jeter, each on one leg, trying to flip the script one more time.

Afterward, Pettitte said his leg is fine. It looked good enough when he tried to cover first base in the third. Lawrie hit a ball that Nick Swisher misplayed as Pettitte bustled over. Swisher recovered and then threw it away. Pettitte said he didn't run any more awkwardly than usual.

"It was a train wreck over there between me and Swish," Pettitte said.

Pettitte saved the inning by forcing Adam Lind to hit into a double play.

"You have confidence in Andy because he knows how to get that double-play ball or the strikeout or to get the big pitch, and he is not going to be overwhelmed by the situation," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The original plan limited Pettitte to 70 pitches. When he was at 68 after four, Girardi let him work the fifth. If a man got on, Pettitte would have been pulled. Instead, seven pitches and three outs later, Pettitte wanted more, petitioning for another inning.

"I told him, 'We are not going to hurt you the first start,'" Girardi said. "That would be silly. He gave us everything that we asked for and probably a few more pitches than we wanted [him] to throw."

This is just the start for Pettitte. As is often the case, Pettitte was unsatisfied.

"I wasn't crazy about a whole lot of stuff," Pettitte said.

Still, Wednesday wasn't about stuff. The Jays had a lineup that usually doesn't have much success.

The only way to grade Pettitte against the Blue Jays on Wednesday was pass-fail -- and it was all about his health. He passed the test. Now, as he continues his spring training-like preparation, the Yankees need him in postseason form.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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