At 37, Pettitte not finished yet

NEW YORK -- The last time Andy Pettitte began a season as well as this one, Bill Clinton was president, Joe Torre was Pettitte's manager and Pettitte was only 24 years old.

And even that 5-0 start, accomplished in the first month of the 1997 season, wasn't as good as this 5-0 start. Because this time, the ERA is 1.79, the body is 37 years old, the arm has more than 3,000 innings on it and the left elbow has periods of crankiness like the one that just caused him to miss a start, much to his public displeasure.

Still, the Yankees look at the kind of start Andy Pettitte is having with neither slack-jawed astonishment nor shoulder-shrugging indifference. After all these years, they continue to be impressed by him but can't really say they are surprised.

"I never doubt Andy Pettitte because of his heart," manager Joe Girardi said. "I've caught him, I've coached him, I've managed him and I would never put limitations on him simply because of what he has inside."

Fifteen years after he threw his first major league pitch, 13 years after he won that fifth game of the 1997 season, a year in which he went 18-7 with a 2.88 ERA, something still burns inside Andy Pettitte every time he takes the baseball.

"Warming up today, I felt a little hesitant," said Pettitte, who left his last start, on May 5 with soreness on the outside of his left elbow during a game against the Orioles. "I had to tell myself over and over, 'Just throw the ball. Just throw the ball. If it starts hurting, just go with it.' I felt like I was a little overprotective in the bullpen. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, don't hurt it."

But once the game started, there was no holding Pettitte back. He got a break on the first play of the game, when Brett Gardner raced up to snag Denard Span's diving liner at his shoetops. He got another terrific play in the third by Nick Swisher in right, and maybe a little help from the wind gods on Joe Mauer's fly to the warning track in center after walking two batters with two out in the sixth.

But in between, it was all Pettitte, throwing more cutters than normal, despite the fact it was the cutter that was biting his elbow the last time out, and spotting his fastball the way he did to the last hitter he faced, Justin Morneau, who watched one zoom by him on the corner for the first out of the seventh.

And he got a huge assist from Damaso Marte, who had failed spectacularly at his specialty, retiring left-handed hitters, on Friday, when both Morneau and Mauer ripped him in the seventh inning, giving the Twins a short-lived lead. Saturday, Marte succeeded just as spectacularly, coming on to catch pinch-hitter Jim Thome looking at a slider after David Robertson had left two runners on base in what was still a 3-0 game.

But the biggest factor in the Yankees' win -- their second in a row at home after losing four of the previous five on the road -- was the tenaciousness of Pettitte. "Today, he was strike one all the time," said Francisco Cervelli, who caught Pettitte on Saturday with Jorge Posada DH-ing, and caught him the last time he pitched, against Baltimore. "He was aggressive the whole game. He pitched like there was nothing wrong with him."

In fact, he was a little short in conditioning after not having pitched in 10 days, a layoff that annoyed him when it was announced he would be skipped his last time out.

"I did not want to be skipped," he reiterated yesterday. "I wanted to just go with it. I got a little tired in the sixth from the layoff, my legs went on me a little bit, lost my focus and almost let the game get away from me. Fortunately, Mauer hit it to the big part of the ballpark and we got out of it."

Asked if he could remember the last time he was 5-0, Pettitte said he could not. Asked if he could remember being 24, he just laughed. "Is that when it was?," he said. "Long time ago. Back in the day."

In fact, when Andy Pettitte pitches the way he did Saturday, it really doesn't seem that long ago at all. Seems like only yesterday.

Game notes

Derek Jeter, who had been mired in a 3-for-29 slump on the road trip that dropped his average to .267, had two hits, an RBI and scored a run in his first two at-bats. ... Swisher, a game-time decision for Girardi because of soreness in his left biceps, started and got a fifth-inning single off Twins left-handed starter Francisco Liriano, but may not play Sunday against right-hander Nick Blackburn. "I have my concerns about him swinging lefty," Girardi said. ... Mark Teixeira's two-run home run in the seventh was a blast into the narrow third deck high above the right-field fence, a feat not only of power but of accuracy. ... Posada's two-run homer later the inning, however, was sheer brute force, landing well beyond the center-field fence just to the right of Monument Park. ... Sergio Mitre, pressed into emergency service last Monday against the Tigers because of Pettitte's injury, gets similar duty Sunday due to the rainout in Detroit on Tuesday. ... Chan Ho Park, out since April 16 with a strain of the right hamstring, is expected to be activated for Sunday's game.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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