With one out in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon, many among the Yankee Stadium crowd of 41,631 rose to their feet. On a day Andy Pettitte received a heartfelt ovation for just about everything he did -- warm up, take the field, throw his first pitch -- it was time for one more.
The applause crackled even before manager Joe Girardi reached the mound. By the time Girardi beckoned reliever Cory Wade, it had thickened to a roar. The fans wanted to tell Pettitte how glad they were to have him back, how reassuring it was to see No. 46 on the mound and those steely eyes peering over the glove. Just before Pettitte descended into the dugout, he waved briefly as if to say thanks.
When players are booed, friends soften it by saying fans react to results, not people. This was the opposite. Here, in this tough-to-please town, Yankees fans cheered for the man, not the performance.
Pettitte, who turns 40 next month, didn't pitch poorly in his first major league start since the 2010 American League Championship Series. But he didn't pitch brilliantly, either, against a pedestrian Seattle lineup.
The Pettitte of now is not yet the Pettitte of old.
The Yankees, though, seemed content with Pettitte's performance in the 6-2 loss. Pettitte did, too. The raw numbers were respectable: 6 1/3 innings, four earned runs. Two-run homers by Justin Smoak and Casper Wells -- elementary school students when Pettitte debuted with the Yankees in 1995 -- accounted for all of Seattle's scoring against him.
"It felt great -- it felt like I never left," Pettitte said afterward, and he was entitled to that satisfaction. But he said twice Sunday that the ultimate measure of his comeback will be whether the Yankees win their 28th World Series title this year. By that measure, the ol' lefty has much work to do indeed.
Despite Pettitte's upbeat tone, he admitted to several shortcomings: He said he shook off catcher Russell Martin -- who was catching him for the first time -- too often during the Mariners' decisive sixth-inning rally. Pettitte acknowledged that he should have thrown more off-speed pitches. He didn't locate his four-seam fastball inside to right-handed batters. He felt his legs tire late in the game.
Pettitte's fastball was firm enough. Girardi noticed a lot of 88- and 89-mph readings on the stadium radar gun, which is within Pettitte's normal range. Pettitte actually believes he's capable of better.
"If it's like it is every other year," he said, "I'll get stronger over the next couple months."
But that's the thing: This is, fundamentally, not like it is every other year. Pettitte had never retired before, nor tried to pitch after a one-year layoff. As good as he was in 2010 -- 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA -- injuries limited him to 129 innings that year. Even though he's joining the regular season one-quarter of the way through, there are doubts about how much stamina Pettitte will have by the end. Sunday offered a potential warning sign: On Pettitte's third trip through the lineup, Seattle hitters went 5-for-8 and scalded his hardest stuff.
"I'm nitpicking this one start, because I know that's what we want to do here today," Pettitte said. "But this is going to happen. This happens to me a ton during the course of a season. That's what pitching is all about, trying to figure out what you've got that day, attack the guys and figure out a way to get them out when you don't have your good stuff. That's what I feel like I've done my whole career.
"There is not a question in my mind about how this is going to play out for me. It's not about this one start. I'll measure if this was a successful return at the end of October."
In the near term, at least, the Yankees have set him up to succeed: Pettitte's next two starts are scheduled to be against the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals -- two teams who have scored fewer runs this season than the offensively challenged Mariners.
But let's not underestimate the task before him: For a man whose frame of reference is October greatness -- his 19 postseason wins are the most all time -- there's a real chance that this effort, however admirable, will fall shy of Pettitte's own expectations.
Pettitte's teammates must do their share if they are to play the last game of the season, and it remains to be seen if this Yankees team is good enough. Statistically, the team has two above-average starters (CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda) and two below-average starters (Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes) in addition to Pettitte. The Yankees rotation entered Sunday with a 4.78 ERA, 26th among 30 big league teams. Does that sound good enough to win title No. 28?
The Yankees are hardly a team in crisis -- certainly not in comparison to their ancient rivals from Boston. They had won five of six before Sunday. Derek Jeter has played spectacularly this season, and Robinson Cano's easy swing is finding its groove. But this doesn't feel like a dominant team, not with Alex Rodriguez totaling eight extra-base hits in 34 games and Mark Teixeira hearing a few boos at .223. The Yankees must pitch well. To do that in the absence of Michael Pineda, they need Pettitte.
Sunday, you could look at Pettitte's start and bend it toward your predisposition. There were reasons to hope. There were reasons to worry. To the extent that Pettitte looked and felt comfortable on the mound, the Yankees were within their rights to call the day a success -- even as the doubt lingers still.
"It's strange," Pettitte said. "I was coaching Pony League baseball, throwing batting practice to kids, working with them, watching high school baseball -- now I'm doing this."
The home crowd remembered that and gave him the proper recognition.
The hitters didn't give a damn.