Andy Pettitte’s First Big League Start (and His Pre-1995 Career)

On May 27, 1995, exactly four days after Mariano Rivera’s debut, Andy Pettitte made his first big league start. (It’s funny to see that on May 16 of ’95 the Yankees optioned Pettitte to Class AAA Columbus and to fill his roster spot, they recalled  Rivera: these two were intertwined from the start in New York.)

The two biggest pitching mainstays for the Yankees of the past 15 years were both victims of shutouts in their first outings, as the New York Times of May 28 reported:

The Yankee virus is spreading. Another starter is wrapped in gauze, another opposing pitcher pushed the Yankees’ mute button and another member of their farm system was no antidote.

Another day, another bag of cold bats. The journeyman pitcher Steve Ontiveros was only a lousy ground-ball single away from a no-hitter today, and the Oakland Athletics notched a 3-0 victory in front of 23,473.

New York has lost 5 straight games, 9 of 11 and another body. Second baseman Pat Kelly sat out today’s game with a sore tendon in his left wrist and is a candidate for the disabled list, and the Yankees, as a result, provided the rookie pitcher Andy Pettitte with an infield made from scratch.

Randy Velarde, a third-string shortstop subbing for the injured Tony Fernandez, was today’s victim. His throwing error in the second inning negated an otherwise admirable outing by Pettitte (seven hits in five and one-third innings) and led to two irretrievable, unearned runs. Throw in Ruben Sierra’s monstrous home run in the sixth, and Ontiveros had all the lumber he needed.

The 34-year-old veteran yielded just that one hit, a simple single up the middle by Luis Polonia with two outs in the sixth, and the unpredictable spins on his breaking pitches had New York flailing again. The Yankees last lost five in a row in September 1993, and they had not been one-hit in a complete game since Tom Candiotti did so for Cleveland on Aug. 3, 1987. The loss left New York four games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox, who played the Angels in California later tonight.

“We’re too tense,” Polonia, the left fielder, said today. “I guess there’s too much pressure on this team. Everybody’s getting crazy. We just want to score 20 runs in one inning, and it doesn’t work that way.”

Over the last five days, they have nearly been no-hit twice — by Chuck Finley and now Ontiveros — and their scores have been reminiscent of Little League games. On this trip alone, the Yankees have been outscored by 35-6, and today they could not navigate a runner into scoring position.

Asked if he can recall such a horrific Yankee slump, Polonia said: “Not like this. It’s everybody. Sometimes, it’s four, five guys; here it’s everyone. Pitching, hitting.

“This is a hard team to relax. When we start losing, they start talking trading. This is the worst team to relax.”

Bernie Williams and Danny Tartabull have the Yankee virus worse than anyone. Neither has had a hit on this trip, and both have looked confused at times. Williams is 0 for 15 on the trip (with 7 strikeouts), and Tartabull is 0 for 13 on the trip and 1 for his last 25.

“Nobody can say we’re not trying hard enough,” Williams said.

By Manager Buck Showalter’s computations, the Yankees hit exactly one furious ball today — Velarde’s third-inning line drive straight to A’s center fielder Stan Javier.

“Remember it well,” Showalter said.

Otherwise, it was Ontiveros’s turn to make the Yankees look foolish. “I pitched one of the better games I’ll probably ever throw,” said the pitcher who went five years — from 1989-1994 — without making anyone’s opening-day roster.

He praised his breaking ball, said he hopes he can bottle it and improved his record to 5-1. But, whether he will admit it or not, the hyper Yankees contributed to his cause.

“Ontiveros pitched well, but,” Showalter said, pausing. “I don’t want to detract from his performance, but.”

He paused again.

“Put it this way,” he continued, “we’re not swinging the bat well; that goes without saying.

“You always hope tomorrow’s the day.”

Today, the Yankees hoped borrowing from Class AAA Columbus was the route to take. The left-handed Pettitte was called up to make his first major league start, but he learned major league infielders can have the same scattershot arms as minor leaguers.

He yielded two cheap hits to begin the second inning, but buckled down and finally induced the A’s Mike Bordick into a two-out ground ball.

The ball hopped straight to Velarde, who threw for the first row, bringing first baseman Don Mattingly’s feet off the bag.

Mattingly snared the ball with a nice leap, but Bordick beat the throw, and Sierra scored from third courtesy of Velarde’s error. Rickey Henderson followed with a bloop single to center field, and Terry Steinbach scored to increase the A’s lead to 2-0.

“Just threw it high,” Velarde said. “It’s like opening day for some of the guys. I guess it’s a time to check out our character. We’re sitting back and waiting for something big to happen, but I’ve never heard of a six-run home run.”

The injuries are just exacerbating the situation. Kelly injured his wrist during a checked swing Friday night, woke up in agony and had it wrapped by mid-morning. X-rays were negative, but he also underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test this afternoon. Russ Davis, an infielder, had been optioned to Columbus to make room for Pettitte, but now Davis may be kept on board in case Kelly goes on the disabled list. Regardless, the Yankees had to start another rookie at second base today, Robert Eenhoorn.

So the average age of the Yankees keeps dwindling. They start another rookie pitcher, Mariano Rivera, on Sunday, and there are no indications he can stop the flooding any better than Pettitte could.

Is the pressure on Showalter?

“Bring it on,” the manager had said before the game, winking. “I’m a big boy.”

In the wake of Pettitte’s announced retirement, I thought it worthwhile to look up some things on his career before May 1995. In June 1990, a time when Todd Van Poppel when dominating the hype about high school pitchers in Texas, Pettitte was pitching for Deer Park High School as it vied for the 5A baseball title. The Houston Chronicle of June 6, 1990 said:

Deer Park pitchers Andy Pettitte and Jay Vaught want to show that they have not only the state’s top pitching staff but also the state’s best team as they prepare for this week’s Class 5A state high school baseball tournament beginning Thursday at Austin’s Disch-Falk Field.

Deer Park (29-5), which has won nine consecutive games, eight in the playoffs, opens the Class 5A semifinals Thursday at 5 p.m. against Austin Westlake (33-4). Duncanville (31-4) plays Arlington Martin (23-8) at 8 p.m. The two semifinal winners meet Friday at 8 p.m. for the state championship.

Most of the attention is focused on the Duncanville-Arlington Martin game, which features two of the best high school pitchers in the nation in Duncanville’s Todd Ritchie and Arlington Martin’s Todd Van Poppel. . . .

Pettitte (14-2) will start for the Deer in Thursday’s semifinal game. If Deer Park beats Austin Westlake, Vaught (7-2) will start in the championship game.

“We feel like if we can win that first one, then the advantage might swing to us,” said Deer Park Coach Steve Maas. “I feel like I’ve got two No. 1s.

“I really think if we win the first game we will win it all. Our other No. 1 (Vaught) has to be as good, if not better, as everyone else.

“He’s (Vaught) a bulldog out there. He doesn’t think anybody out there ought to beat him. I would love to get him out there in that Friday game. I think he might be pretty tough to beat.’

Deer Park has been using the lefthanded Pettitte, who has signed with national junior college champion San Jacinto College, as the first-game starter and following with Vaught in the second game all through this year’s playoffs.

“As long as I pitch a good game and we field well and score a couple of runs, we’ll win,” said Pettitte.

In four playoff games, Pettitte is 4-0 with 42 strikeouts. . . .

All season long, Pettitte has been meeting the challenge as he has pitched against the opposition’s top pitcher. In the opening game of the Region III championship series, Pettitte went head-to-head with Bellaire’s Kelly Wunsch. In a seven-inning complete game, Pettitte struck out 15 and allowed only three hits in a 4-1 Deer Park victory.

Maas has nothing but praise for Pettitte, who throws in the 83-86 mph range.

“He’s a big lefthander to begin with. Any time you’re lefthanded in high school, you have an advantage right there,” said Maas. “He throws an awful lot of strikes. He just doesn’t put too many people on base at all.

“He has a better than average fastball, but he controls it for strikes. He has a good overhand curveball, and he throws a knuckleball. He throws them all for strikes. He can be a power pitcher, and he’s a little bit of a finesse pitcher, too.”

Pettitte won his semifinal start to wind up the 1990 season 15-2, but Deer Park lost the 5A title game. In August, his South Belt baseball team won the Palomino World Series in North Carolina. Not quite five years later, in April 1995, the New York Times’ Jack Curry wrote about Pettitte and the pressure for him to start making a big-league salary:

Andy Pettitte has a 5-month-old son and a wife living with his in-laws in Deer Park, Tex. He would love to buy his own house so Josh could have a backyard and Laura could have a picket fence. First, Pettitte must build a pitching career with the Yankees.

There is scant competition for jobs this spring training because the Yankees are secure at almost every position, but the 22-year-old Pettitte is one player here who is wrestling for a roster spot. The Yankees have not yet christened Sterling Hitchcock, the strong favorite, as the fifth starter, and they also need a left-handed reliever, so Pettitte is pursuing either role and the $109,000 salary that would come with it.

“It’s definitely a pressure situation,” said Pettitte. “If I didn’t have a wife and baby, I wouldn’t be so impatient. But I’m ready to play now. That would be real nice.”

Pettitte, a 6-foot-5-inch left-hander with three solid pitches and tidy control, was 7-2 with a 2.98 earned run average for Class AAA Columbus and 7-2 with a 2.71 e.r.a. for Class AA Albany last season. He was selected New York’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year. No other Yankee minor leaguer won more games than he did.

“I think Andy Pettitte has a bright future in the major leagues,” said Manager Buck Showalter. “He could probably help us in relief if we needed it. But I don’t like to put someone in a situation he’s never done before in his first year. I’d prefer to put Andy in the role he’s most comfortable with.”

Showalter was offering guidelines for Pettitte. While Pettitte said he did “not know what they’re looking for me to do,” Showalter is not eager to use him as a reliever. If Pettitte wants to get the major league paycheck and the house in Texas, he probably has to overtake Hitchcock for the final spot in the rotation. Hitchcock was 3-0 with a 2.93 e.r.a. as a starter in 1994, and Pettitte figured his chief competitor is entrenched. Columbus might call Pettitte back to improve his 42-20 minor league record.

“That’s definitely a frustrating feeling,” said Pettitte, who earned $2,100 a month last season. “You want to get up there as quick as possible. When you think you’re ready and they sign other people, you can get bitter. But it’s no good to be bitter. All you can do is be patient.”

Pettitte will help the Yankees, maybe this season or maybe next. He throws a 92-mile-an-hour fastball, a curveball and a changeup and walked only 1.96 batters per nine innings last season. Showalter likes to keep a starter on call at Class AAA in case of injury or ineffectiveness so Pettitte might snare that role.

“He’s going to be a great major league player one day,” said Nardi Contreras, Pettitte’s Class AAA pitching coach in 1994. “It’ll be soon.”

In a soft Texas drawl, Pettitte admitted he must work not to be in “awe” of the big-name hitters he might face.

“It’s tough because I want to make it so bad,” Pettitte said. “I try not to worry about what might happen. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to Columbus and try to get back.”

Derek Jeter made his Yankee debut at the end of May, and Jorge Posada made his in early September. The groundwork for the dynasty was getting established.

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