KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The question has been hanging in the air for the past three weeks or so, unasked and perhaps more ominously, unanswered:
Had age finally caught up to Andy Pettitte?
After all, Pettitte had been brilliant in his first three starts of the season and increasingly ineffective in his next three, and with each bad outing, Pettitte's perplexity seemed more obvious and the doubts, while unspoken, seemed to grow stronger.
It wasn't so much that he had lost velocity; Pettitte has lived, and thrived, in the 88-91 mph range for years now.
No, for him, it was never the heat, but the vicinity, and suddenly, pitches that used to drop out of the strike zone were lingering over the plate, just waiting to be crushed, which they often were.
And after each of those last three starts, two of them losses, Pettitte said essentially the same thing: I've misplaced my cutter and can't seem to find it.
Well, as is often the case, the item that seemed hopelessly lost turned up again Saturday night, in precisely the location it was last seen: in Pettitte's left hand.
Pettitte used it to tame the Kansas City Royals, holding them to five hits, one of them a solo home run by Billy Butler, over seven innings to earn his fourth win of the season, and the Yankees won the second game of this three-game series, 3-2, at Kauffman Stadium on a two-run homer by Vernon Wells in the fifth.
And afterward, even Pettitte, as self-confident a professional athlete as you will ever meet, admitted to feeling relieved at rediscovering what had always been there until a couple of weeks ago.
"Of course I'm relieved,'" he said. "Whenever you do have a couple of outings when you get knocked around or whatever, it's not a good feeling. You never want that doubt to creep in, like, 'Oh, you're not able to get this done.'"
It was only natural for those doubts to creep in. After all, it was only 12 days ago that the lowly Houston Astros slapped Pettitte around for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings and then, six days later, the Oakland Athletics tagged him for two home runs in five innings.
In the meantime, his 17-year-old son, Josh, pitched his second high school no-hitter of the season, and Pettitte's 41st birthday seemed to be speeding its way here, even if it's not scheduled to arrive until June 15.
All of a sudden it seemed as if Father Time, a relentless pursuer who Pettitte has somehow managed to keep at bay, had finally caught up.
"I think people sometimes become too concerned about age,'" Joe Girardi said. "I really don't believe he's forgotten how to pitch, forgotten how to throw a cutter or locate a fastball, any of that. I always say, when you're old or overweight -- and you don't want to be both -- and you're struggling, people are ready to say, is there something wrong? No, it's baseball. Everybody struggles."
True statement. It's just that Pettitte's struggles have been so few and far between, especially since he decided to come back a year ago March after sitting out all of 2011, that this one appeared to have the look of permanence about it. Especially given Pettitte's reaction to it.
Now, in hindsight, Pettitte says maybe he overreacted to his own struggles.
"You guys know me long enough, you know I wear my feelings on my sleeve a little bit," he said. "I didn't think that I threw a good cutter. But I finally went back and watched the video of my last two starts and it turns out I threw a lot of good cutters in the last few games, it's just that I made a lot of mistakes with it. I feel like I actually blew it way out of proportion, to tell you the truth."
A start like Saturday night's will go a long way to making the previous ones disappear, the way a sunny morning can wipe out the memory of a nightmare.
Pettitte's seven innings against the Royals, which included seven strikeouts, all of which came on cutters -- sometimes misidentified on pitch-tracking websites as sliders -- were the equivalent of his sunny morning-after.
His command was evident, also, in the fact that he walked just one batter after having walked four in five innings his last time out.
And he did it all without much help from the umpires, who missed the fact that what was ruled an infield RBI single by Elliot Johnson in the third inning was actually a ball fouled off his foot, and a ball four granted to Lorenzo Cain in the fifth inning was actually a 2-2 pitch that Pettitte deliberately bounced in the dirt in front of home plate. In fact, not even Joe Girardi realized that the umpires missed the count.
"It was a trying day for me today,'' Pettitte said, smiling ruefully. "In both instances I was standing out there on the mound, and everybody was looking at me like I was nuts. I thought I was losing my mind cause I didn't hear anyone else yelling for me.''
On this night, Pettitte was not losing his mind, although he might have been, just slightly, after the preceding two games.
"I just did some stuff that's very uncharacteristic of me and so that was probably a bigger reason that I was probably so difficult on myself,'' Pettitte said of his previous two outings. "I don't like to look at video if you have bad stuff, but in this case it was good for me to see what was going on. I was losing my angle on all my pitches and I really didn't know why I was doing that. You come up with all kind of reasons.''
At least now he knows it was not because of the one reason not even Andy Pettitte could do anything about.