Andy Pettitte solid in final rehab start

Andy Pettitte's Tuesday night didn't start very well -- minor leaguer Chase d'Arnaud, who hit a home run once in every 100 plate appearances in Double-A ball this season, led off the game by clubbing Pettitte's out pitch, his cutter, over the right-field wall -- but it ended with the words the New York Yankees have been waiting to hear for almost two months now.

"I'll pitch in Baltimore and that will give me three starts," Pettitte said after throwing five innings of six-hit, two-run ball for the Trenton Thunder in the opening game of the Eastern League Finals against the Altoona Curve.

He meant Sunday at Camden Yards versus the Orioles, not some Double-A bandbox, and three starts before what has often been his best part of the season, which is October. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in Tampa on Tuesday night that Pettitte would throw a bullpen session. Girardi will wait to see how it goes before determining whether Pettitte will indeed start Sunday in Baltimore.

"It's been terrible," Pettitte said about missing 54 games of the Yankees' season, dating back to the second batter of the third inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on July 17, when he felt something tear in the left side of his groin.

At the time, the Yankees said his recovery would take five weeks, while Pettitte insisted three. Eight weeks later, they're still awaiting his return. On the day Pettitte went down, the Yankees were playing .637 ball, had a 58-33 record -- the best in baseball -- and held a three-game lead over the Rays.

But in the ensuing two months, the Yankees have come down to earth. Their record since Pettitte went on the DL is a decidedly mortal 30-24, and the Rays have stuck their nose in front a few times. The Rays moved into first place after Monday night's 1-0 walk-off win in 11 innings, and while the Yankees regained first with an 8-7, 10-inning win Tuesday, it appears Tampa is fixing to stick around to the very end of this increasingly fascinating story.

Pettitte's injury may not be the sole cause of the Yankees' late-summer swoon, but he is certainly a big reason.

And as the playoffs draw closer and the pitching gets thinner, it is becoming increasingly clear that without a healthy Pettitte, the Yankees will struggle to defend their World Series title, and in fact, might not get out of the American League at all.

But those worries can wait for another day. The news out of Altoona was mainly good. Pettitte threw 67 pitches in the game, another 10 or so in the bullpen, shook off the leadoff homer and even fielded a bunt without disaster. His strikes-to-balls ratio was outstanding -- he threw just 18 balls -- and his command, with the exception of the cutter that came up flat to d'Arnaud, was better than acceptable.

"I still got work to do," Pettitte said. "But all in all, I felt good. Unless they tell me I'm not starting, I feel like I'm ready to get into a big league game and get going up there."

For the Yankees, Pettitte cannot arrive soon enough. Aside from the every-five-days reliability of CC Sabathia, the rest of the rotation can no longer be counted on. A.J. Burnett remains what he always has been, a tease and an enigma. Phil Hughes is nearing his team-imposed innings limit, and Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland have dropped hints that his recent problems are the result of fatigue. Javier Vazquez has been exiled to the Elba of long relief, and though Ivan Nova has flashed dazzling talent, it's not clear that he is ready to carry it past the fifth inning of a game.

Not long after Pettitte walked off the mound in Altoona, Nova was chased off the mound in Tampa, handing back a six-run lead in a horrendous stretch of the fifth in which he surrendered five hits, including a home run to Carlos Pena. As good as he has looked, Nova has yet to go beyond the sixth inning and has done little to bolster Girardi's or Eiland's confidence in his ability to negotiate a major league lineup two or three times in a game.

So once again, the Yankees must rely on Pettitte, as they have so many times before, to apply his steadying left hand to a wobbly rotation.

"I didn't feel like I was quite as sharp tonight as I was the other night," he said, referring to his first Double-A start, in which he allowed two hits and no runs in four innings. "But it was good to get into some trouble and have to make some pitches to get out of it. Whether here or in the big leagues, that's something you've got to do, and I was able to do it tonight."

It was something Nova was not able to do, and something neither Burnett nor Vazquez has been very good at this season, either. But it is a specialty of Pettitte's. He had an 11-2 record and team-leading 2.88 ERA at the time of his injury.

"I've been out a lot longer than I expected to be," he said. "I feel like I'm a big part of what we want to do up there and for me not being able to go out and take my turn every fifth day, that's been the toughest thing. To watch the guys have to go out there and battle through the aches and pains of a full season and not being able to do it with them, that's been very disappointing."

Pettitte's disappointment is about to come to an end and so, perhaps, is the Yankees' frustration and anxiety that comes every time someone other than Sabathia takes the baseball.

Pettitte is coming back to the Yankees on Sunday. For a team as thin on pitching as they have been, the news they have been waiting two months to hear did not arrive a moment too soon.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. ESPNNewYork.com's Andrew Marchand contributed to this report.