On June 15, Andy Pettitte turns 40 years old, but the year and a half he was "retired" must have done wonders for his left arm. In his fifth start since his return on May 13, Pettitte completely shut down first-place AL East rival Tampa Bay, holding the Rays to two hits and striking out 10 in 71/3 innings while benefiting from Russell Martin's grand slam in the Yankees' 7-0 victory Tuesday night at the Stadium.
Pettitte's record improved to 3-2, but the most impressive aspect of his renaissance has been his remarkable staying power. That first start against Seattle was his shortest at 61/3 innings. He then went eight, seven and seven before Tuesday night's impressive effort. Pettitte reached double figures in strikeouts for the 14th time in his career and the first time since June 5, 2010 at Toronto.
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The victory allowed the Yankees to pull within half a game of the Rays and Baltimore, which won at Boston, for the AL East lead.
Pettitte said his only hope when he came back was to make a positive impact, and the way he's going, it looks as if he can help the Yankees stay in this race.
Manager Joe Girardi said it's the stamina Pettitte has shown that has been most impressive. Asked what he expected of himself, Pettitte gave his "Aw, shucks" shrug and said, "All I remember is how I felt when I left. I probably felt like I was as good as I've ever been when I retired. So, it's kind of weird to sit here and say that's what I thought I was going to be because it was at age 38 then and close to 40 right now.
"But the feel for all my pitches has just gotten better. As long as I stay healthy and you carry some velocity on your fastball to keep hitters honest and if I can keep moving the ball around and keep the feel of your pitches, I feel like I'm going to be how I was when I left. I'm obviously pleasantly surprised so far."
The Yankees staked Pettitte to a 2-0 lead in the first inning thanks to a two-run throwing error by Tampa Bay shortstop Elliott Johnson.
Pettitte was typically efficient, holding the Rays without a hit the first three innings, striking out the last five in a row in that stretch. Tampa's B.J. Upton ended any thoughts of a Johan Santana-like no-hit resurrection with a leadoff single in the fourth, but Pettitte remained in complete control.
James Shields, on the other hand, lacked command of the strike zone.
In the fourth, he loaded the bases with one out by walking Raul Ibañez, allowing a single to Nick Swisher and then walking DH Eric Chavez. That brought up No. 9 hitter Martin, who fouled off two pitches and then ripped into a 92 miles-per-hour fastball, sending it into the seats in right-centerfield for his fourth career grand slam and a 6-0 lead.
"Down 0-2 against Shields, I'm not thinking home run," Martin said. "But I got a good pitch, and the next thing you know, it was in the bleachers."
The Yankees added a run in the fifth on a run-scoring double by Swisher and then sat back to admire Pettitte's mastery.
After the game, Pettitte was reminded he has only one more start remaining while he's in his 30s. With a sheepish grin, he said, "That's right, unfortunately. We're getting real close. I was talking to Raul. He tells me he's alive still. He turned 40 the other day in Detroit, and he goes, 'It ain't that bad.' "
It certainly ain't.