New York Yankees starting pitcher Andy Pettitte reacts after giving...

New York Yankees starting pitcher Andy Pettitte reacts after giving up a three-run homerun in the second inning. (Sept. 24, 2010) Credit: KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

About the only positive to come out of Andy Pettitte's evening was the sight of the Yankees lefthander jogging off the mound after he handed the ball to manager Joe Girardi.

Hey, at least his bothersome groin clearly wasn't an issue.

Otherwise, his second major-league start after nine weeks on the disabled list went as badly as the numbers indicate.

Pettitte allowed seven runs (six earned) and 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Red Sox and was so ineffective that Girardi lifted him 15 pitches short of his ideal pitch count of 90, essentially because everyone had seen enough.

A Red Sox lineup that was missing the names Youkilis and Pedroia sprayed liners all over the field, making it easy for Yankees fans to at least wonder what kind of Pettitte they'll get for the postseason.

"It's somewhat concerning . . . but I'm not going to panic," Girardi said. "Andy has a track record."

Fight the urge to read anything of significance into Pettitte's final starts this month, most especially his rough one Friday night, because what we're watching right now is his spring training all over again.

Counting Pettitte's two rehab starts for Double-A Trenton earlier this month, Friday night's game marked only his fourth start since he returned from the nagging groin strain he suffered July 18.

It's also important to note that Pettitte revealed after his first rehab start with Trenton that the Yankees' trainers basically ordered him to stop all leg exercise activities, limiting him to light jogging. That was because he suffered a setback in August because he was pushing his legs too hard.

So with each tuneup start for the postseason, Pettitte is not only working on getting the feel back for his pitches and mechanics but building much-needed leg strength.

It's not a perfect situation, as Pettitte has said often this month. But the Yankees know a less-than-perfect Pettitte on the mound in the playoffs is much better than their other options not named CC Sabathia, because they know from experience just how much of a competitor he is.

"You see Andy starting and you think we have the right one there," Mariano Rivera said of his longtime teammate. "That's what he brings to the table. There's no guarantee what's going to happen, but you know he will give you everything he has."

Pettitte said he "couldn't get anything going" against the Red Sox and struggled to find a rhythm. His velocity was just fine and he said he could have pitched longer, if only the Red Sox weren't making such great contact with his pitches. Of the 20 hitters he faced, 10 got hits.

Pettitte wanted to hit 100 pitches and then do it one more time in his final regular-season start, which the Yankees said before the game is going to be pushed back.

The Yankees moved Phil Hughes' final start from Sunday to Wednesday, which would have been Pettitte's start on regular rest. The reason is because he'll be at his innings limit after that start, ending his regular season, and they don't want him going into the postseason on too much rest.

Girardi wouldn't say when Pettitte's final start of the season will take place, saying he wants to wait until the Yankees clinch a postseason berth before he reveals a rotation for the final week of games. But that final start - whenever it takes place - already was on Pettitte's mind.

"I want it to be a great one," he said. "If it's not, it is what it is, but I'm going to be ready to go."

Given what he's done for the Yankees in previous Octobers, his teammates won't question that statement, regardless of how he finishes this month. Said Rivera, "He has our trust."