Andy Pettitte repeatedly shook his head, smiled and glanced down at the table in the interview room while he tried – in his ”aw shucks” manner – to find one thing that made his return to the big leagues feel strange.
Pettitte was back on the mound Sunday for the Yankees, getting lavished with adoration while pitching into the seventh inning despite giving up a pair of two-run homers in New York’s 6-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners.
It was as if he never left.
”I just cannot believe how comfortable this is for me,” Pettitte said. ”I don’t know how to explain it.”
Nearly lost amid the excitement over Pettitte’s first major league appearance since retiring after the 2010 season was party crasher Kevin Millwood’s performance for Seattle – helped by three double plays. The 37-year-old Millwood (1-4) gave up three hits in seven innings and got his 2,000th career strikeout as Seattle avoided a three-game sweep.
The Yankees tried to prevent their old pal Pettitte from taking the loss with a rally in the eighth against four Seattle relievers. Robinson Cano was walked with two outs by Charlie Furbush with the bases loaded to make it 4-2. Mark Teixeira, though, struck out to end the inning.
The lovefest for Pettitte (0-1) began when the lefty appeared with several players in videos welcoming fans to Yankee Stadium after batting practice. The cheers grew as he strolled out to the bullpen for warmups and fans rose for a standing ovation when the five-time World Series champion followed his teammates onto the field for the first inning.
”I thought it was so awesome. I was so excited. I know we lost today and that’s what a lot of people are going to focus on – I could really care less about that,” Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said. ”We got our boy back.”
The Core Four member even got special treatment from the Bleacher Creatures. They broke protocol after their roll call and started a chant for Pettitte that most of the 41,631 in attendance joined in on. The Creatures normally don’t include the starting pitcher when calling out player’s names in the first inning.
Yankee Stadium got awful quiet, though, when Casper Wells homered in the sixth to give Seattle a 4-1 lead with his first of the season, an opposite-field drive off the netting on the right-field pole. Justin Smoak homered for Seattle’s first hit with two outs in the fourth.
Pettitte’s return had become more important to the Yankees because their rotation had been struggling, with Freddy Garcia demoted to the bullpen. But through the first five games of this homestand, the team’s starters were 4-0 with a 1.31 ERA and Girardi thought their performance would take some of the pressure off Pettitte.
The broad-chested 39-year-old appeared calm as ever in his first big league start in 573 days, since Game 3 of the AL championship series against Texas on Oct. 18, 2010. He sat out last season before deciding in mid-March to make a comeback.
With his cap pulled low, and peering over his glove held up in front of his nose, it looked as if No. 46 never left New York.
”To me it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
After Swisher caught leadoff batter Dustin Ackley’s fly to right with a leap at the wall, Pettitte walked Wells. He then got Ichiro Suzuki to ground into a double play. Pettitte walked Alex Liddi with two outs in the second but Mike Carp grounded out to end the inning.
Not having allowed a hit two outs into the fourth, Pettitte walked former Yankees prospect Jesus Montero and Smoak lined a homer to left. Pettitte showed characteristically little emotion on the mound.
Wells homered following Ackley’s leadoff single in the sixth. The Mariners then loaded the bases with one out on three straight singles but Girardi stuck with Pettitte, and Carp grounded to first. Teixeira stepped on the base and threw home, and catcher Russell Martin tagged a sliding Montero.
Montero, wearing pink shoes for Mother’s Day, limped off the field.
Pettitte returned for one batter in the seventh and induced his 12th groundball out. He left to a loud ovation despite trailing 4-1 and waved to fans as he entered the dugout.
”There is not a question in my mind how this is all going to play out for me,” Pettitte said. ”It’s not about this one start. I’ll measure if this was a successful return or not at the end of October.”
Millwood almost missed out on the 2011 season, too, but not by choice. He spent much of the season in the minors with the Yankees and Red Sox before joining the Colorado Rockies’ rotation in August. He signed with Seattle in the offseason.
”I thought he was outstanding today,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. ”He did a great job with his secondary stuff.”
Millwood had little trouble in his best start of the season. With runners on first and second in the third, he got Derek Jeter to ground into the first of his two double plays.
Jeter also hit into an inning-ending double play after Millwood walked Martin to force in a run in the fifth. Alex Rodriguez grounded sharply into a 6-4-3 double play after a leadoff walk to Curtis Granderson, one of four walks by Millwood.
”We turned some big double plays,” Millwood said.
Millwood fanned Granderson leading off the fourth for his 2,000th career strikeout.
NOTES: Jeter’s single in the eighth was hit No. 3,142, tying him for 16th place on the career list with Robin Yount. … To make room for Pettitte on the roster, the Yankees transferred Mariano Rivera from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day DL and optioned right-hander Cody Eppley to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. … Wells’ homer was the Mariners’ first hit with runners in scoring position this series. The were 0 for 10 coming in.