(He's already been struck down. Does he come back more powerful than we could possibly imagine tonight?)
We've already had to do this once this season, and that was pretty damn unexpected, so just paint me completely shocked that it's the year 2012 and I'm writing my SECOND Andy Pettitte comeback post of the year. After telling retirement to pound sand in the spring, and showing he had plenty left in the tank in 58.2 innings over 9 starts, Andy was sidelined in late June thanks to a line drive off the bat of Casey Kotchman that fractured his ankle. He's worked diligently to make it back to the mound before the end of the regular season, and despite my skepticism that work will be complete tonight when Andy makes his return start against Toronto. So what should we expect this time?
Simply put, I think we can expect a similar performance to what Andy gave in his first start of the season back in May. His stuff won't be perfectly crisp and his command won't be perfectly sharp, mainly due to the simple fact that he hasn't pitched in almost 3 months. But there will be some added cause for concern in this start because Pettitte will make it without any kind of real rehab schedule. With the timing of Andy's injury and recovery time, he comes back after all the Minor League seasons have ended. In May he returned after a series of "prehab" starts in the Minors that allowed him to find his pitches. Tonight he'll come back after throwing a few side sessions and a 55-pitch sim game. Now Andy's been around the block a few times and knows what he's doing, but there's still a huge difference between throwing to Eduardo Nunez in the cage before a game and throwing to an entire opposing lineup when it matters.
The other downside to Pettitte's abbreviated rehab schedule is his inability to boost his pitch count. In May, Pettitte threw 90+ pitches in his first start against Seattle, and bumped that up to 115 in just his second start against Cincy. Tonight he'll probably be capped at 65-70 pitches, a number that could prove problematic if Toronto can work some counts and get some early baserunners. Pettitte is replacing David Phelps and the shorter outings he had been providing, and even with Phelps probably handcuffed to him tonight there is little margin for error for Pettitte if he wants to get 5-6 innings out of his pitch count. The bullpen has been taking on a lot of workload and a little water in the past 6 weeks, and having to cover 4-5 innings for Andy tonight would not do them any favors.
On the plus side, Pettitte is lined up to make 3 starts before the season ends, which he can use to help build up his pitch count for the postseason. There's still nothing guaranteed for the Yankees in that department, but they're playing better ball, they have a favorable schedule (13 of their final 16 against TOR, MIN, & BOS ), and the re-introductions of Ivan Nova and Pettitte into the rotation give them a boost where they need it most. Andy also won't be facing the stiffest hitting competition in these 3 starts. He's scheduled to face Toronto twice and Oakland once and both those teams rank in the bottom half of MLB in OPS vs. LHP; not exactly lefty mashers. The games all count, but there's a bit of comfort knowing Pettitte won't be going up against the Rangers' offense while trying to work himself back into full game shape.
Andy's return tonight is in no way a bad thing. Even with Phelps doing what he did in his last start, Andy gives the team a better chance to win on a more consistent basis, and has a wealth of experience (and pitches) to work with to get the most out of his limited pitch count. I feel more comfortable with the idea of Andy getting through 6 innings on 70 pitches than I do Phelps, and I'm a pretty big pro-Phelps guy. I'm sure there will be a lot of fans holding their breath tonight the first time Pettitte has to come off the mound to field a ball, but if he wasn't healthy enough to do that I can't see how the Yankees would let him back out there in the first place.
Andy is another key piece to this postseason run puzzle, and he gets put back into place tonight.