Pettitte set to take mound for Yankees
TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays have reason to feel optimistic about a rotation that features a pair of heat-throwing left-handers, David Price and Matt Moore.
But don’t look now. Here come the New York Yankees, with their own matching set of stellar southpaws: All-Star ace CC Sabathia and newly unretired Andy Pettitte.
Pettitte’s surprise return to the game, following a year away from it, upgrades an already impressive New York starting five. The 39-year-old Texan took another small step forward Tuesday afternoon beneath the blazing sun on Field 2 outside Steinbrenner Field. With manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild watching closely, Pettitte pitched his second session of the spring in the past five days.
He was a bit tired after throwing 35 pitches of live batting practice — he paused midway through the session for a breather and a cup of Gatorade — but the verdict was another positive one.
“It was good; I felt good,” he told the crowd of reporters who had also watched him throw. “It’s just another step in the process.”
That process began barely a week ago when the longtime Yankees standout and 16-year major-leaguer announced he was coming back. He retired after the 2010 season to spend more time with his family. His return has given the Yankees a sudden and unexpected boost heading the 2012 season, with a staff that also features promising additions Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, along with established starters Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
That abundance of pitching talent has forced starter Freddy Garcia into the bullpen — a road the Rays also followed this week in moving starter Wade Davis to a relief role because of their own wealth of arms.
The question is whether Pettitte can replicate the success he had in 13 seasons with the Yankees, sandwiched around three years with the Astros (2004-06). He retired after posting an 11-3 mark and 3.28 ERA in 2010, giving him a career 240-138 record, 3.88 ERA and 2,251 strikeouts.
Understandably, the Yankees are delighted to have him back in the fold but are taking things slowly. Still, Girardi is encouraged by what he’s seen.
“I thought he looked pretty good,” he said. “He was able to throw everything where for the most part he wanted to.”
Another batting practice or simulated game session could follow in two days. Then the skipper sees Pettitte pitching in one of the final spring training games on the schedule, possibly April 4 in Tampa against the Mets. Pettitte could make his regular-season return in May.
“I think you just have to go with how he feels," Girardi said. "And I hate to give a date, because if he’s not quite ready to go, then people might put up a red flag.”
For now, Pettitte is on track for a guy who spent a year away from baseball. His pitches showed good movement as he faced outfielder Nick Swisher, gradually working his way back from a groin injury, and outfielder Chris Dickerson. He threw 20 pitches from the windup before Girardi rolled the protective screen away, with 15 more pitches coming from the stretch.
“I didn’t feel quite as sharp out of the stretch as I did out of the windup. I need some work there,” he said. “. . . But it was a good day, a positive day and a step in the right direction. I’d be lying if I didn’t say (my legs) got a little fatigued. This is what I’m trying to do – trying to get to where I can drive and explode 100 pitches.
"I’m a long way from there. Even the last three or four pitches I threw, if you just land not quite as strong on that front side, the ball just might be off this much. It’s all part of the process.
What has Pettitte been encouraged by most so far as the process unfolds?
“I’m surprised that my command has been so good, from the first pen I threw down here,” he said. “It took me so long to make this decision, but I felt like I could get back to where I was. So if I don’t get there, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.
“It just seems like everything’s coming back to me really good. And when Swish tells you (the ball) is moving really good, that makes you feel good. He said my four-seamer was riding and my sinker was running. Those are all important things that I need.”
Pettitte’s presence could be just what the Yankees rotation needs, adding some additional competitive juice to the revamped staff.
“If you don’t want somebody to take your job, pitch that way; it’s really simple,” Girardi said earlier in the week. “Let’s say the job was given to you and you were struggling; they’re going to look for someone to give the job to. You have to produce. That’s the world we live in in New York. It’s not like, ‘You’re this guy and we’re going to give you 20 starts no matter what happens.’ We don’t live in that world here.”
If Pettitte hits his old stride, the rotation could be dominant. There are the two newcomers: Pineda, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound righty acquired from Seattle in the offseason after a 9-10, 3.74 ERA rookie year on a bad ballclub, and Kuroda, the former Dodgers righty who signed a one-year deal after a 13-16, 3.01 ERA season.
Hughes, meanwhile, is coming off a rough 5-5, 5.79 season a year after his 18-8, 4.19 showing of 2010. He’s had a good spring, edging out Garcia for a rotation spot. And Nova is hoping to build on a standout rookie campaign in which he went 16-4 with an ERA of 3.70. Then there’s the anchor, Sabathia, who was 19-8 and 3.00 and is 59-23 with a 3.18 ERA in three seasons with the Yankees.
Surrounded by such good company, Pettitte can’t wait to put himself through the next meaningful test, on the mound in an exhibition game.
“I’m excited to get into a game whenever I can, and whenever that is,” he said. “That’ll be the key — to get into a game situation. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, as long as it’s not my players. You’re worried about hitting them. So just an opponent that’s not my team — that’s when you really get your good work in.”
But even throwing BP, Pettitte’s work has been plenty good so far.