Commentary

Andy Pettitte, in a word? 'Fierce'

Swisher, Yankees in awe as lefty continues to power up for postseason

Updated: September 25, 2012, 1:40 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the six days since he returned to the big leagues for the second time this season, Andy Pettitte has pitched 11 innings, won two games and has not allowed a run.

And he still considers himself "a work in progress."

In season of some truly remarkable stories, from Derek Jeter's eighth 200-hit season to R.A. Dickey's Cy Young-caliber season to Melky Cabrera's bogus website, the resurrection of Andy Pettitte may be the most remarkable of all.

On a night in which a 1½-game lead in the division suddenly felt like five games -- after the Orioles split a doubleheader with the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees were finally able to add a half-game cushion to their lead with Monday night's 6-3 win over the Minnesota Twins -- it was tempting to think that maybe Pettitte, 40 years old and no threat to the radar gun, might just be able to lead the Yankees where they want to go.

Nick Swisher summed it up as follows: "Guy takes a full year off. Comes back. Breaks his foot on a crazy play. Has been itching to get back in the lineup for a long time. And once he does, he delivers every single time. Every time he takes that mound, he's locked in out there."

The word Swisher used to describe Pettitte's on-field demeanor? "Fierce."

In truth, a guy with Andy Pettitte's repertoire -- mediocre fastball, decent cutter and slider, occasional changeup -- has no business having Andy Pettitte's record, or reputation.

Even his own teammate, Eric Chavez, sounded like he was handing out backhanded compliments when he said, "You don't have to have good stuff to make good pitches, and he's evidence of that."

But Chavez hit the nail on the head, and so did Swisher.

The secret to Pettitte's success lives less in his arm than in his head.

"He just bears down," Russell Martin said. "He's a natural competitor. You're going to have to try to out-compete him, and I don't know anybody who can really do that. Even behind in the count, he just never gives in."

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
AP Photo/Jim MoneAndy Pettitte's success has as much to do with his mind as it does his left arm.

That competitive streak is what brought Pettitte back after a year at home with the family in Deer Park, Texas, and it is what made him determined to pitch again this season after a line drive off the bat of Casey Kotchman snapped his fibula just above the left ankle on June 27, nine starts into his comeback.

And it is what will drive him to be ready for the postseason, where he has always excelled, even though there is time for just one more regular-season start.

"That's all we got," Pettitte said, "So that's going to have to be enough."

Anyone care to doubt him?

Facing an admittedly weak team with little motivation, and a personal patsy to boot -- Pettitte is 10-0 in his past 12 starts, regular season and postseason, against the Twins, dating back to May 2001 -- Pettitte still ran into some first-inning trouble after the Yankees had staked him to a 3-0 lead on Swisher's 23rd home run of the season.

A leadoff single, an infield hit and a walk wrapped around a flyout gave the Twins bases loaded, one out and Justin Morneau, one of their two former MVPs, at the plate.

Pettitte fell behind 2-1, then got a gift when home-plate umpire Paul Nauert called a strike on a pitch that was clearly outside. But there was no doubting the two-seamer that Pettitte snuck past him at 91 mph, his top speed for the night, for strike three. Pettitte then got Ryan Doumit to ground out to end the inning, but having used up 23 of his 90-pitch allotment, a short night seemed to be looming.

But he got through the second on 12 pitches, and weathered another storm in the third, when, with first-and third and one out, he slipped a cutter to Josh Willingham, the most dangerous bat in the Twins lineup, and got what he needed, a double-play ball hit right at Jeter.

"It's the same old Andy; we've seen it for years," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "When he needs a double play, he finds a way to get it."

Pettitte got bailed out by his defense in the fourth when Curtis Granderson, who in the top of the inning had belted his 40th home run of the season, gunned down Doumit at the plate on Jamey Carroll's single to center.

And he got out of a potential scrape in the fifth with another double play, this one off the bat of Denard Span. After a 1-2-3 sixth, Pettitte left with a 4-0 lead, having thrown 87 pitches and allowing seven hits.

"Obviously if you go out there and throw six scoreless innings, that's a good outing," Pettitte said. "But I feel like I'm still struggling with stuff a little bit. I know how sharp I was when I got hurt, and I would love to see my stuff get back to where it was. I got some work to do, that's for sure. I'm a work in progress."

So was Michelangelo's David at one point.

But this is what makes Pettitte great. Not the fastball that tops out at 91 or the cutter that ends up at the shoetops, but the absolute refusal to accept "good enough" when what he really wants is to be great.

"I think that's just his DNA," said Martin, who has caught Pettitte in 10 of his 11 starts this season. "He's always trying to get better. He could throw a perfect game and he's probably going to say, 'You know, I could have made a couple of better pitches.' That's how he is. I don't think you'll ever hear him be content about an outing."

The Yankees were certainly more than content with Pettitte's work in this one, even if they needed the cushion of two more solo home runs, by Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez, to allow them to weather another shakey outing by David Robertson, who surrendered a two-run triple in the eighth to pinch-hitter Chris Parmalee to at least give the appearance of a competitive ballgame.

But truly, the competition was won by Pettitte, who is now 5-3 with a 2.71 ERA in his abortive comeback season. These aren't the games Pettitte came back for, of course. They are just the gateway to what for him has always been the real season, the one in which he has walked off the mound a winner more times than any pitcher in baseball history.

"I love this guy, dude. I absolutely love him, bro," said Swisher, who was intoxicated with the night, with his home run, and with Andy Pettitte the concept as much as Andy Pettitte the pitcher. "There's nothing that fazes him. You can only look at that, and just be like, 'Man, I want to be like that.'"

After 17 seasons, it has become pretty obvious that only Pettitte can be like that. And for the Yankees, that may turn out to be enough.

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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