Andy Pettitte turning back the clock

NEW YORK -- On Monday night, the Yankees used their first-round draft pick to select Ty Hensley, an 18-year-old high school pitcher, largely on the fact that the radar gun says he can throw a 97 mph fastball.

On Tuesday night, Andy Pettitte, who has a son as old as Ty Hensley and will turn 40 in nine days, shut down the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the best teams in baseball, without throwing one pitch faster than 89 mph all night.

In fact, according to PitchFX, of the 404 pitches he has thrown in his five comeback starts, Pettitte has broken 90 on the gun all of once.

Pettitte was drafted in the 22nd round of the 1990 amateur draft, after more than 600 other players, and a pitcher with his repertoire these days might not get drafted at all.

And yet, more than 17 years after his major league debut and coming off a layoff of almost two years, Pettitte is right now the best starting pitcher on the Yankees staff, bar none.

After his 7 1/3-inning, two-walk, 10-strikeout performance, Pettitte's 2.78 ERA is nearly a run better than CC Sabathia's. No one is even close to his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is nearly 5-to-1. His WHIP, for those of you so inclined to value such things, is 1.01. (Sabathia is next at 1.24). He has yet to leave a game before the start of the seventh inning.

And as Russell Martin said after Pettitte had stifled the first-place Rays on two hits, one of which arguably could have been called an error, "On days when he pitches, it just gives a different energy to the team. It's remarkable."

On a night on which the Yankees scored six of their seven runs with the bases loaded, a news flash in itself, and moved within a half-game of the AL East lead, Pettitte was by far the biggest story of the night. The Yankees beat the Rays 7-0 in the first game of this three-game series, and Pettitte made it look like a mismatch.

"It seems like he hasn't missed a beat," said Martin, whose fourth-inning grand slam was the offensive highlight of a game that belonged to the winning pitcher. "And I think he's just scratched the surface right now. We're at the tip of the iceberg. He's going to have a great season for us; to keep doing what he's doing, he just needs to stay healthy."

That is a big "if," of course, especially considering that in Pettitte's last full season, he broke down in mid-July despite being two years younger and in equally excellent physical shape.

As for the rest of it, there are no ifs or buts about it. Pettitte is as good as he has ever been since returning to the Yankees in 2007. Working with a fastball that lives in the upper 80s, a cutter that resides around a hitter's ankles, and a curveball that moves slower than I will drive home tonight, Pettitte is striking out batters at a higher rate than at any time in his career besides 2004, when he was admittedly being helped by HGH.

The 94 mph heater he displayed that year as a Houston Astro may be a distant memory, but clearly Pettitte has not misremembered how to pitch.

In fact, he put on a clinic Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, baffling a solid lineup with an array of pitches designed not to overpower anyone but to stymie just about everyone.

"I don't really try to strike guys out," Pettitte, now 3-2, said. "I feel like I'm able to keep guys off balance an awful lot right now. I've been real happy with my command and the feel of all my pitches. I didn't think it would come back so quick. The feel of my cutter has been really good. I only left a couple of balls over the heart of the zone all night long."

When managers and pitching coaches talk in vague terms about guys "knowing how to pitch," this is what they're talking about. Pettitte may have gone away for a while, but he brought his encyclopedic knowledge of how to retire professional hitters back with him.

Joe Girardi, of course, says he is not surprised that Pettitte has been able to make such a seamless transition back to big league ball -- "That's who he's been and that's the only Andy that I know" -- but has his own theory for why it has seemed so easy for the pitcher so far.

"I really believe that he went home and probably threw as much BP as he would have in the course of a season, probably even more," Girardi said. "You're trying to throw strikes to your kids, you're not trying to knock them down, obviously, but you're trying to throw good pitches, and I think it's helped."

The manager paused and then added, "At least I hope he's not trying to knock them down."

No, that would be the other guy from Texas, Pettitte's former teammate and friend, Roger Clemens. Pettitte said he did work with his kids -- his oldest, Josh, tweeted "Pops is dealing!" during the game -- but mostly his success comes from simply not trying to do too much and relying on what has always worked for him.

"All I remember is how I felt when I left," he said. "When I left [after 2010], I probably felt like I was as good as I've ever been, when I retired. It's kind of weird for me to sit here and say it, but I think the feel for all my pitches has just gotten better. I feel like as long as I can stay healthy and keep moving the ball around, I'm going to be how I was when I left.

"I've said you don't really know what to expect coming back, but I'm obviously pleasantly surprised so far with what I've been like."

As for the team showing more energy on the days he pitches? Pettitte had his own theory for that, too.

"I think the guys enjoy when I pitch," Pettitte said. "I think sometimes I'm an amusement for them also, just because I'm old, I guess. I know that we have a good time and they enjoy making fun of me a little bit."

They can rib him about his age all they want, and his gray hair and his meandering fastball.

Andy Pettitte may not be able to light up a radar gun or catch the eye of a scout anymore, but when it comes to pitching, he can teach a graduate level course.