The best game Andy Pettitte ever pitched in his life was Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. In that game, which began with the Yankees and Braves tied at two games a piece in the Series, Pettitte out-dueled John Smoltz for 8 1/3 shutout innings. Pettitte wasn’t perfect in that game. He only struck out four, walked three, two of whom then stole second on him, and gave up five hits, but while Smoltz allowed just one unearned run, Pettitte didn’t allow a runner to third base until the ninth inning and yielded to John Wetteland with one out in the ninth having thrown just 96 pitches. Wetteland got the last two outs to seal the 1-0 win and send the Yankees home for what would prove to be a triumphant Game 6.
Game 5 of the 1996 World Series stands as the pinnacle of my baseball fandom, and it remains the pinnacle of Andy Pettitte’s career, but for six-plus innings last night, Pettitte looked like he was about to reach a new peak.
Andy Pettitte had everything working last night. He was throwing in, out, up, down, using all of his pitches, locating perfectly, and dropping some devastating curveballs into the strike zone. While the Yankees eked out a pair of runs against Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie on a Nick Swisher homer in the third and doubles by Robinson Cano and Swisher in the fifth, Pettitte was busy retiring the first 20 men he faced.
With one out in the sixth, Matt Wieters hit a slow chopper in on the grass toward third base. Jerry Hairston Jr., giving Alex Rodriguez a day off at third base, charged, barehanded, and fired to first in what was really the only difficult play that needed to be made behind Pettitte all night. Ty Wigginton hit a grounder directly to Derek Jeter on the next pitch for the third out. After six innings, Pettitte had thrown 66 pitches, struck out six, and not once gone to three balls on a batter.
Every so often a pitcher will take a no-hitter or perfect game into the middle innings despite not looking any sharper than usual. A.J. Burnett had a game like that earlier this year. Sergio Mitre had one just a few days ago. Monday night, Andy Pettitte looked like a pitcher throwing a perfect game. He looked like David Cone pitching to the Expos, but instead of Cone’s characteristic improvisation, Pettitte was methodical, precise, and seemingly effortless.
The first two batters of the seventh inning flew out to Swisher in right field on 2-2 counts. Swisher took a wrong step on one of the two flies, but recovered and struggled to contain his relieved grin as he threw the ball back into the infield. Adam Jones, who had just missed a home run foul down the left field line earlier in the game, took ball one from Pettitte, then hit a routine grounder directly at Hairston, the previous inning’s defensive hero.
Hairston booted it.
After the game Hairston’s teammates told him and the media that the ball took a funny hop, but Hairston was honest. It was a routine grounder and he just plain missed it. The ball hit off the heal of his glove and trickled through his legs for an error that erased Pettitte’s perfect game. It was the second time this season that I’ve seen a perfect game come to an end on an error. The first was Jose Uribe’s eighth-inning error in Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter against the Padres on July 10. Sanchez finished the game without a hit or a walk, the only blemish being Uribe’s error.
As difficult as it might be to swallow losing a perfect game to a fielding error, the most impressive thing Sanchez did in that game, particularly given his reputation for being over-excitable and folding after bad breaks, was to gather himself and complete the no-hitter. Monday night, Pettitte tried to do the same, but Nick Markakis put a good swing on a fastball up and away and lined it inside the left-field line for a single. That didn’t make Hairston feel better, but it made him less infamous.
With the Yankees still up just 2-0, Pettitte had lost a perfect game and a no-hitter in the course of four pitches and now had the tying runs on base. He then went to his first (and only) three-ball count of the night, going full on Nolan Reimold, but got another grounder right at Jeter to strand both runners.
With Guthrie out of the game in favor of veteran lefty Mark Hendrickson, and Pettitte’s balancing act off their minds, the Yankees put up three insurance runs in the top of the eighth. Pettitte gave up a lead-off homer to Melvin Mora in the bottom of the eighth, scuttling the shutout as well, but struck out the next two men and got one more groundout for good measure on his 104th pitch, leaving the ninth for the bullpen after eight innings, no walks, just two hits, and eight strikeouts.
Brian Bruney’s first three pitches were balls as he walked Brian Roberts to start the ninth. A one-out single followed, prompting Joe Girardi to bring Mariano Rivera in to finish the job, extending the major league record held by Rivera and Pettitte for most games saved by a single pitcher for a single teammate. Pettitte also moved past Lefty Gomez into sole possession of third place on the Yankees’ all-time wins list.
After the game, Pettitte found Hairston in the locker room with his head down and went over to cheer his teammate up. “You took the pressure off me,” he told Hairston. “Besides, if I hadn’t thrown one already, I wasn’t going to. I didn’t want to pitch nine innings anyway.”