03/20/12 8:30 PM ET
'Impressive' Pettitte wows Yanks on mound
Lefty feels strong after bullpen session of about 50 pitches
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Russell Martin couldn't believe he was catching a 39-year-old who'd taken a year's sabbatical, not after the lefty popped his glove in the bullpen with such accuracy. Had the calendar really said October 2010 when Pettitte last stood on a Major League mound?
"It's weird to say, but I feel like I never left," Pettitte said. "I don't know how to explain it. It's just weird. I thought it was going to be a lot more awkward than it has been today."
In fact, the only real indication that Pettitte hadn't emerged from a time machine came at his locker. Pettitte once stashed his belongings along pitchers' row in the clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field, but he has ceded his coveted territory -- the stall next to the room's only TV set -- to newcomer Hiroki Kuroda.
Pettitte's No. 46 hangs instead alongside a group of Minor League hopefuls, which of course accurately describes what the left-hander is at this time. For all the wonderful nostalgia that Pettitte's return creates, restoring the active "Core Four" to three members, the Yankees hold a scheduled Old-Timers' Day for a reason.
This comeback is taking place because the Yankees believe Pettitte can help them win Major League games as soon as May 1, getting back to the form he showed in 2010. Nothing Martin saw in a bullpen session of about 50 pitches seemed to change that hope.
"That's as good of a bullpen as I've caught all spring -- from anyone," Martin said. "I don't know what the velocity was and what his arm strength feels, but as far as executing pitches, it was pretty impressive."
It is not as though Pettitte popped up from the couch and started throwing four-seam fastballs to both sides of the plate; he had been keeping his arm in shape for months by throwing to his kids in the Houston area, as well as secretly training in the winter just to see if he could rev his body back into game shape.
But manager Joe Girardi said that the pitcher he talked to on Tuesday seems a lot different than the guest instructor who'd made the hard left turn into the coaches' room last month and dressed alongside Stump Merrill.
"There's a purpose; that's the difference," Girardi said. "The three days he was here, I didn't see him in the weight room a half-hour. He came in and did a leisurely run; the exercise is no longer leisurely. It's preparation. He knows what he needs to do."
Pettitte joked to pitching coach Larry Rothschild that he might be able to get ready in three weeks, and that was met with a stern glance from the pitching coach. Pettitte understands that he will need about six weeks under a best-case scenario to face the best the American League has to offer.
Pettitte's biggest concern at this point is making sure his legs are strong to avoid nagging injuries, which he battled in the second half of 2010 to his groin and back. He may be ready in time to make an appearance this spring, but Girardi nixed the idea that Pettitte would get as many as five Grapefruit League innings.
"Right now, I just feel really good," Pettitte said. "There's not anything that's giving me trouble. My arm feels good, my elbow feels great. Right now, it would just be trying to get my legs strong and be able to go out there and drive for 100 pitches like I need to do."
Pettitte expressed some surprise that he was feeling as sharp as he appeared in the bullpen, where bullpen coach Mike Harkey even stood in as a hitter for the last few pitches of the session.
But the fact that Pettitte arrived in shape shouldn't be a shock; the Yankees truly believe he can roll back the clock. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman went as far as to offer him a $10 million to 12 million guaranteed deal in December, a whopping sum for someone who hadn't pitched in more than a year.
"Getting to the place that we were and talking the money they were talking about, I [thought], 'These guys really think that I could get back to where I was,'" Pettitte said. "So obviously, that makes you have confidence."
There is no guarantee that this will work out with a happy ending, the way Pettitte could take solace in that he'd pitched well in 2010 and helped his club get to the playoffs. He acknowledged on Tuesday that he could have the long-feared second blowout of his elbow, which would effectively finalize his playing career.
Another scenario, less likely in the Yankees' eyes, is that Pettitte could come back healthy but ineffective. Pettitte said that those risks are worth taking because he still believes he can help the Yankees win another World Series.
"No matter what happens, I'm going to be good with it, because I feel like it's the right thing to do in my heart," Pettitte said.