They gave him a standing ovation and chanted his name lustily in unison, the way the Bleacher Creatures in Yankee Stadium have done so many times through the years.
As Andy Pettitte neared the third base dugout he doffed his cap to thank the crowd of 13,584 – the second largest baseball throng in Frontier Field history.
If you had shown up at that moment, you would have sworn that Pettitte had just put the finishing touches on a masterpiece. But, in reality, the ace pitcher from the latest chapter of the New York Yankees dynasty had been roughed up like an old batting practice hurler. In five innings, the 39-year-old yielded eight hits (including four doubles) and five runs (three of which were earned) as the Empire State Yankees lost 7-5 to International League rival Pawtucket. Pettitte’s lack of command was evident most of the day as he labored to throw 92 pitches – 33 of them balls.
Still, when it came time for him to depart for good after inducing a line drive to Empire State leftfielder Ronnier Musteller in the top of the fifth, the fans in Rochester showered him with cheers instead of jeers. They seemed to be thrilled just to be able to catch a glimpse of the pitcher with 240 regular-season wins and a record 18 more in the post-season.
They were applauding Pettitte for what he once was and what they hope he can be again for a Bronx Bombers team that is in desperate need of a dependable starting pitcher.
That Rochester would turn Frontier into a mini-Yankee Stadium clearly had caught Pettitte by surprise as he continued his comeback from a one-year retirement.
“I did not expect it,’’ he said of the serenade from the packed house. “. . . Tell everyone I said, ‘Thank you.’ I wish I had pitched better.”
Pettitte walked two – including one batter with the bases loaded – and struck out five. The PawSox smacked four doubles off him and the first four batters of the game recorded hits. The old lefty did settle down somewhat in his final two innings, retiring the final six batters he faced, including one on a nifty play by Pettitte on a slow roller down the third base line. He also staved off further damage in the fourth when his signature pickoff move nailed a runner off first.
He said his velocity was consistent – in the high 80s – but that he was having trouble getting a feel for his off-speed stuff. Seeking the silver lining, he said “it’s good to get into trouble and have to work my way out of trouble. Just going through what you’ve got to go through to get game-ready. I feel good. I felt like I was ready to go (up to the Yankees) after my last start.”
The statistics would seem to indicate that Pettitte isn’t quite there yet. In six minor-league starts this spring, he has allowed 14 earned runs on 33 hits over 27 1/3 innings. On the plus side, he has 27 strikeouts and allowed just three walks.
Ready or not, Pettitte apparently is going to be back in the bigs later this week.
“I feel like I’m ready to go up, and I think they’re ready for me to come up,’’ he said.
As one of the Yankees “Core Four,” along with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, he undoubtedly will receive a huge ovation when he toes the rubber in the House That The Boss Built later this week. He will attempt to turn back the clock, and, even if it’s only to two years ago when he went 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average, he and the Yankees will be happy.
For that to happen, he’ll need to be a lot sharper than he was Sunday at Frontier. Otherwise, the comeback will result in a comedown, and Pettitte will join a long list of athletes who should have stayed retired.