The New York Yankees led the AL East by 10 games in mid-July and it appeared they would cruise to the division title. It hasn't been easy, of course; from July 19 through Sept. 11, the Yankees went 22-28. For nearly one-third of the schedule the Yankees played like the Royals.
It's perhaps not a coincidence that Andy Pettitte was injured during that entire span. The Yankees have gone 10-2 over their past 12 games with Pettitte making two of those starts and allowing zero runs. A 40-year-old pitcher coming back from a broken bone in his left leg to deliver 12 scoreless innings without the benefit of minor league rehab starts? Incredible. You can see why the Yankees -- and Yankees fans -- love the guy so much.
As Nick Swisher said after Monday's win over Minnesota, "Guy takes a full year off. Comes back. Breaks his foot on a crazy play. Has been itching to get back in the lineup for a long time. And once he does, he delivers every single time. Every time he takes that mound, he's locked in out there."
Pettitte barely survived the first inning against the Twins, loading the bases with one out but he struck out Justin Morneau looking on a 2-2 fastball and got a groundout to escape the jam. He got a double play in the third and Curtis Granderson threw out Ryan Doumit at home plate in the fourth, but it was still vintage Pettitte: fastballs, cutters, sliders. He was throwing 90-91 early in the game, but his velocity dipped in the later innings and he responded with more offspeed stuff, even a couple slow curves. Overall, he actually threw his highest percentage of fastballs in any start this season (57 percent).
As Pettitte continues to build up arm strength, the Yankees' rotation suddenly looks better than it has all season with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes joining Pettitte as the likely playoff starters. That's a far cry from last season, when Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett started playoff games; or even 2009, when the Yankees managed to win the World Series with a three-man rotation of Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte.
With a 1.5-game lead over Baltimore and a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way (two more in Minnesota, four at Toronto, three at home against Boston), it appears the Yankees will hold off the Orioles to win the East. Which puts Andy Pettitte back where we've seen him 42 times previously, more than any pitcher in history: Starting a postseason game.
His postseason reputation probably exceeds his actual performance (his career 3.83 ERA is more very good than great), but the one thing he'll do is keep you in the game. He's gone at least six innings in 13 of his past 14 postseason starts, and the one time he didn't was a 5.2-inning effort in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series on three days' rest.
Solid, reliable and sometimes great. Even at 40 years old, he's a guy you want out on the mound in a big game. That presence may just make the Yankees the AL favorite heading into the postseason.