David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Andy Pettitte pitched in another simulated game Saturday afternoon. By all accounts, it was a good outing.
What followed a few hours later, however, was all too real. CC Sabathia failed to protect an early 2-0 lead and the Yankees -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- had trouble again with the whole run-scoring business.
Sabathia, as the No. 1 starter, is the compass of the Yankees' rotation. When he's a little off, no matter how slightly, it becomes difficult to stay on course. By Sabathia's usual calibration, he was way off Saturday, serving up three homers and five runs in 6 1/3 innings as the Yankees fought back but stumbled, 5-4, to the Orioles at Camden Yards.
As a result, the Yankees might be a bit lost at the moment, looking ahead to the eventual return of Pettitte, who could be ready in another week, as well as picking a spot for Ivan Nova.
Joe Girardi chose to stick with Freddy Garcia for Sunday's finale with the Orioles rather than abruptly switch to Nova, who got shipped to the bullpen instead. But most of the conversation leading up to Sabathia's critical start was about the status of Pettitte, as if adding him will immediately cure the Yankees' ailing playoff push.
It probably won't hurt. Pettitte, at age 40, is a smart, experienced pitcher who has been down this road before. And after watching David Phelps crumble in Thursday's opener, this rotation could use a double dose of Pettitte's icy confidence.
The issue here is what Pettitte truly can offer. His rehab from a fractured fibula progressed more slowly than expected, and even now, Pettitte is only up to the 45 pitches he threw in Saturday's simulation. The plan is for him to see a doctor again Monday in New York, stage another similar outing this week in Boston and then presumably join the rotation not long after that.
The Yankees have plenty to worry about already in fighting off the Orioles. With Pettitte, it's a matter of balancing his rehab schedule with the do-or-die urgency of a division race. Pettitte insists he's up to the challenge, despite not having thrown a pitch that counts since June 27 -- the day he was struck on the leg by Casey Kotchman's line drive
"I feel like, mentally, I'm really able to put it all in perspective," Pettitte said. "I'll continue to go out and pitch my game, and whenever they let me, I'll go as hard as I can for however many pitches that is.
"I'll attack the hitters just like I always have tried to. Obviously, it's just a matter of hopefully being effective that day, just like any other start."
Pettitte badly wants to pitch in this race, and Girardi wants him to just as badly. The feeling is mutual. And if this were another pitcher, say Nova for instance, neither would be hustling this hard this late in the season. It's not quite at the desperation phase, but the needle on that meter is getting close.