David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
In the seventh inning, with many of the 41,631 fans on their feet, Andy Pettitte handed the baseball to Joe Girardi and began a familiar walk to the Yankees' dugout. The standing ovation continued for every step, and Pettitte, head bowed, waited until the last possible moment before waving to the crowd.
For Pettitte, that was the most uncomfortable part of yesterday afternoon, really the only time his universe seemed out of whack. As much as this was supposed to be a welcome-home party for a beloved Bronx son, Pettitte, deep down, couldn't accept such an outpouring of gratitude. Not when he was the one responsible for sticking the Yankees in a 4-1 hole.
"It's nice. It's great. That's awesome," Pettitte said. "I appreciate them so much. I think they know I just want to do my job. Sometimes maybe you feel like you don't give them what they want, I guess, but I'm just trying to worry about pitching. And at that time, I'm coming off frustrated that I let the game get out of hand a little bit."
That right there is the essential ingredient to Pettitte's comeback. For him, it can't be about the adoration, or the money, or another farewell lap around the warning track whenever this season finally wraps up.
The bottom line is that Pettitte needs to help the Yankees win, and as Sunday's irritation showed, that remains his overriding priority. As long as giving up runs still chews at his insides, as long as he still gets furious at himself for being on the wrong end of games like Sunday's 6-2 loss to the Mariners, Pettitte is doing this for all the right reasons. The pitching side of it, even at age 39, he probably can figure out eventually.
"I'm nitpicking this one start because I know that's what we want to do today," Pettitte said. "But this happens a ton during the course of a season. That's what pitching is all about -- trying to figure out a way to get them out when you don't have your best stuff.
"I feel like I've done that my whole career, so there is not a question in my mind about how this is all going to play out for me. It's not all about this one start. I'll measure if this was a successful return or not at the end of October, when I'm hoping we're where we want to be."
Pettitte deserves a passing grade for Sunday's effort, maybe a C, for the simple fact that it was his first time on a major-league mound in 19 months. And he managed to stay there into the seventh inning, throwing 94 pitches, before Girardi pulled the plug.
As first steps go, that's a decent one. Pettitte allowed four runs on a pair of two-run homers, but on most days -- especially against a pitcher like the 2012 Kevin Millwood -- the Yankees should be able to overcome that. They average 4.91 runs and boast the third-highest-scoring offense in the American League.
The quality of those innings, however, left something to be desired. The Mariners are a terrible offensive team, at the bottom of the AL with an OPS (.657) more than 150 points lower than the Yankees. The degree of difficulty is going to increase significantly against their division foes -- not to mention AL juggernauts such as the Rangers and Tigers.
For Pettitte to beat those clubs, or keep the Yankees within striking distance, he needs to be sharper. His fastball velocity was encouraging -- sitting at 87 to 89 mph -- but Pettitte's location was off, making his cutter ineffective. The one Justin Smoak hit for a two-run homer in the fourth inning had the soft break of a slider, which made it far too inviting to wallop.
"That's kind of his nitro zone," Pettitte said. "Just a horrible pitch."
In the sixth, with a 2-and-2 count on Casper Wells, Pettitte wanted to freeze him with a fastball on the outside corner. But the pitch caught far too much of the plate and Wells smacked it off the rightfield foul pole screen.
"I made a couple of mental mistakes that I shouldn't have made," Pettitte said. "They cost you the ballgame."
In the big picture, it's only one game, one loss. And if Pettitte does wind up getting the Yankees to October, as he suggested Sunday, maybe he'll be a little easier on himself. But probably not much.