Andy Pettitte turns back the clock

You have to go back in time nearly two years, to July 8, 2010, to find the last time a capital W appeared next to the name of Andy Pettitte in a big league box score.

And to find the last time Pettitte's pitching line as a Yankee read eight shutout innings? A whole lot further than that.

Try nearly a decade.

On Friday night at Yankee Stadium, Pettitte, the 39-year-old "rookie" of the Yankees' starting rotation, turned the clock back to June 30, 2002, a time when his hair was all black and his fastball nicked 94 mph. On that night, he threw eight scoreless innings at the Mets.

For the next 118 months, he had been unable to duplicate that performance as a Yankee, although in 2006 he had thrown a complete-game shutout against the Colorado Rockies as a member of the Houston Astros.

Until Friday night, when he bettered it, throwing eight innings of four-hit, no-run, nine-strikeout ball at the Cincinnati Reds in a 4-0 Yankees victory.

It would be just as insane to go too gaga over this one outing as it would have been to climb out onto a ledge over Pettitte's previous outing, a loss to the Seattle Mariners.

For one thing, facing any National League lineup is a lot easier than facing any American League lineup, even one as anemic as the Mariners'. For another, even by NL standards, the Reds are a pretty feeble bunch at the plate.

But it certainly seems safe to conclude that in Pettitte, who in four weeks will turn 40 years old, the Yankees have found a solid No. 2 starter to compensate for the disappointment of Hiroki Kuroda.

In fact, Pettitte's start against the Reds was not just his best in more than six years, it was the best by any Yankees starter this season. It was better than CC Sabathia's best -- 8IP, 7H, 2R, none of them earned -- better than anything Ivan Nova or Phil Hughes has been able to come up with and one hit better than the brilliant performance Kuroda was able to conjure up for the home opener April 13.

In fact, so transcendent was Pettitte's performance Friday that it moved his manager to make a remarkable claim -- that Pettitte is a better pitcher today than he was in 1996, when Pettitte was a 24-year-old 21-game winner and his catcher was a veteran named Joe Girardi.

"When I caught him years and years ago, it was fastball, cutter and curveball," Girardi said. "He had a changeup but he didn't throw it much, and he didn't backdoor his cutter and he really didn't throw a sinker. He's got so many more weapons to go to now, so I think he is better."

Pettitte did not disagree.

"I felt like the last couple of years that I was playing that I'd gotten better just from the standpoint that I felt like I could throw any of my pitches really when I want to," he said. "When you're able to do that, you kind of feel like you're better. You don't feel like quite so one-dimensional like I sometimes feel like I got earlier in my career."

Pettitte used every one of his weapons against the Reds, but really, he needed them only in the first inning, the only time he was in any sort of trouble. And that wasn't even his fault. Keeping the ball down, Pettitte struck out the leadoff hitter, Zack Cozart, with a cutter in the dirt that bounded away from catcher Chris Stewart, who then airmailed the ball into the stands trying to nail Cozart at first.

That gave the Reds a runner at second and none out, and after Drew Stubbs bunted Cozart to third, Cincinnati had the heart of its order -- Joey Votto (the 2010 NL MVP), Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce -- coming up and a run 90 feet away, which, with the way the Yankees have been hitting, could have been a commanding lead.

But Pettitte struck out both Votto and Phillips, on a cutter and a slider, respectively, and the Reds never got another runner past second base.

In fact, of Pettitte's nine strikeouts, six came on sliders and three on cutters. For a guy who hit 90 mph on the gun only twice all game, in the first inning, it was an overpowering performance.

"What you learn, you never forget," said Robinson Cano, whose eighth-inning solo home run, followed closely by Raul Ibanez's two-run shot, gave the Yankees some breathing room. "He's a guy that knows how to pitch. To see him pitch like that in his second outing, it's good to see him back."

In either a show of confidence in Pettitte or a lack of confidence in his bullpen in a one-run game, Girardi sent Pettitte out to pitch the eighth despite his lefty having already thrown 106 pitches. But Pettitte needed just nine pitches to navigate the eighth and finished his night with 115 pitches, 78 of them strikes.

"All my pitches were working, my cutter was really sharp early and it just allowed me to open stuff up later in the game," Pettitte said. "I got a little tired those last couple of innings but I was able to stay within myself. I didn't try to overthrow; I just kind of stayed with what I had and tried to make pitches."

Pettitte also got a massage between the seventh and eighth innings from trainer Steve Donohue, a perk older pitchers are entitled to. But most of it came from within, from the kind of determination and focus that has enabled Pettitte to win more postseason games (19) than any other pitcher in baseball history, and that compelled him to try a comeback after nearly two years in retirement.

"His focus has a lot to do with it," Girardi said. "Focus is making one pitch at a time, and if something goes wrong behind you or you give up a base hit, letting it go. Andy has always been really good at that. He understands how to control his emotions. He's been through it so many times."

Pettitte admitted his emotions might have, understandably, gotten the better of him in his first start, but now he says he is back into his routine, just another Yankees starter who goes to work every five days.

"I might have been a little uptight last game. ... I might not have been as relaxed as you need to be when you're trying to make pitches," he said. "It was good to get in a good rhythm and feel good with all my stuff and give us a good start. I was able to really feel like I was able to do whatever I wanted out there tonight."

He is not just another pitcher in the rotation, though. He is Andy Pettitte, and on this night, he looked like the Andy Pettitte of two years ago, five years ago, even, according to Girardi, 15 years ago.

Said the manager: "We are a different rotation with him."

Like Pettitte himself, the Yankees' rotation is not just different with him in it.

It is better.