Lean On Me: Andy Pettitte, Still There for the Yankees

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When the Yankees signed Andy Pettitte to a one-year contract in January, he was almost an afterthought, an old-school Yankees pseudo-legend taking one last tour of duty with the franchise that adored him — but didn’t expect that much from him. He made $16 million last year but had a mediocre season, finishing 14–14 with a 4.54 ERA. This year: Just $5.5 million, with performance bonuses. (With another two-thirds of an inning, he’ll have earned $1 million more.) With the flashier signings of A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia, and the expected emergence of Joba Chamberlain, Pettitte was expected to be a fifth starter, filling in the back end of the rotation.

Things have turned out quite differently. With his eleventh win last night, Pettitte tied Lefty Gomez for third place on the all-time Yankees win list with 189, and, more to the point, he has secured a spot as perhaps the team’s most reliable starter in the second half of the season. In his last eight starts, he’s had a 2.79 ERA, and with Chamberlain’s struggles and the Chad Gaudin–Sergio Mitre fifth-starter silliness, he’s more vital than ever.

And it’s looking like he’ll occupy a familiar spot for the Yankees come October: postseason starter. This isn’t something he or the team could’ve anticipated. For years, Pettitte held down the No. 2 playoff rotation slot: He’s taken the ball for Game 2 in the 2007 ALDS, 2003 World Series, 2003 ALCS, 2003 ALDS, 2002 ALDS, 2001 World Series, 2001 ALDS, 1999 ALDS, 1998 ALDS, 1997 ALDS, 1996 ALDS, and 1995 ALDS. He very well might do it again this year.

His resurgence is an underrated component of the Yanks’ second-half success: When he began his run of excellent starts, the team was tied with the Red Sox for first. His steadiness has helped lead to the six-game advantage they currently hold and, more important, made the fifth-starter and Joba woes more manageable. If Pettitte hadn’t stepped up this season, the Yankees’ rotation would have two expensive free agents up top, and a mess behind them.

This year’s Yankee team has a different feel than the disappointing combos from most of this decade: There’s more invincibility built in. It’s the return of Yankees exceptionalism, but with a mostly different cast. But when those freezing October nights return to the Bronx, Andy Pettitte will be back in his familiar role: the guy you trust on the mound in must-win games. In a season of change, he’s back to the reassuring presence he once was. Good thing: The Yankees will need him.