Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pettitte Seven Outs From Perfection

Andy Pettitte had perfect stuff Monday.

He just didn't have perfect luck or defense.

Pettitte had all his pitches working, retiring the first 20 batters he faced until an error by Jerry Hairston Jr. spoiled the bid for a perfect game Monday in Baltimore.

After allowing a single to Nick Markakis on the next at-bat with two outs in the seventh, Pettitte settled down, completed the eighth and led the Yankees to the 5-1 victory to move 6-1/2 games ahead of the idle Red Sox in the AL East.

Pettitte (12-6, 4.03 ERA) ended up allowing one run -- a leadoff homer by Melvin Mora in the eighth -- on two hits in eight innings. He walked none, struck out eighth and threw 73 of 104 pitches for strikes.

I have never seen him pitch better and I was gripped rooting for him to achieve what only three other Yankees (Don Larson, David Wells and David Cone) had done before.

I image that was a similar sentiment for the whole of Yankees fans. Pettitte is beloved. He is a home grown guy and was a cornerstone in the four championship teams of the 1990s. He's also been a class act and decent person, which is not to say he's been ... well ... perfect.

Yes, he had a failure in judgment in deciding to use human growth hormone. That will forever place him among the game's performance enhancing drug cheats, joining Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and many others.

It's a stain that will follow him, but yet seems to be tempered by the way he handled his admission: with sincerity and full honesty. He was genuine and perhaps that's why he hasn't bore the full brunt of any fan backlash.

And perhaps that's why it seemed the entirety of Camden Yards was cheering him on with every pitch, and booing after Adam Jones' grounder bounced off Hairston's glove and through his legs for that error.

No one felt worse about it than Hairston, who made a nice play to preserve the perfect game in the sixth.

“No excuses,” he said. “I just missed it. … “There are 750 guys in the majors. Nobody feels worse than me tonight.”


And Pettitte couldn't have handle Hairston's miscue with more class.

“I wasn’t too, too excited yet,” he said. “I had a lot of outs to get.”

To make that statement is stunning. It would kill some people to come so close to perfection, especially someone such as Pettitte, whose previous longest perfect stretch to start a game was only 4-2/3 innings.

And let's face it, Pettitte is not exactly the type of pitcher you'd expect to even through a no-hitter, much less a perfect game. That's not to say Pettitte isn't a tremendous pitcher. Monday's win was his 190th with the Yankees (227th overall), placing third on the teams all-time list behind Red Ruffing (231) and Whitey Ford (236).

But many great pitchers have never pitched a no-hitter and Pettitte, while he can strike out batters, is known more for keeping hitters off-balance and pitching to contact. That means he will give up hits ... and get double plays in a typical outing.

And while Pettitte's stuff was dazzling Monday, just as amazing was his resolve. After the error and allowing Markakis' ground single down the left field line, Pettitte could have let down. How many times have we seen a pitcher lose a no-hitter or perfect game and then just come apart?

But nursing a 2-0 lead thanks to Nick Swisher, who went 3-for-4 with a homer and RBI double, Pettitte buckled down. He got Nolan Reimold to ground to short to end the seventh, and after allowing Mora's homer to left in the eighth, he struck out two of the next three to end his outing in style.

In between, the Yankees busted it open with three more on Johnny Damon's RBI single and Robinson Cano's two-run double.

But the outing was the continuation of what's been a great stretch since the All-Star break for Pettitte. He's 4-1 with a 2.56 ERA and is averaging 6-1/3 innings a start.

Pettitte and CC Sabathia have been carrying the pitching staff since the break.

My bet is that Pettitte continues this roll through the rest of the regular season and in the playoffs.

Runners In Scoring Position
Monday
3-for-14 (.214)
Season
329-for-1,222 (.269)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
112-for-403 (.278)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
264-for-949 (.278)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Tuesday at Orioles, 7:05 p.m., YES
A.J. Burnett (10-8, 4.10) vs. David Hernandez (4-6, 4.24)

Burnett is winless in his last six starts, going 0-3 with a 7.11 ERA, including his last outing against the Rangers, in which he allowed three runs on two hits and three walks in six innings.

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