"Let's put it this way: We'll leave Florida with him," manager Joe Torre said, "which is something we weren't sure about a week ago."
Pettitte threw 31 pitches in an early-afternoon bullpen session, dialing up his velocity and making use of his complete repertoire. Afterward, he said that he never dreamed the back spasms -- first incurred on March 19 -- would last as long as they did, but said he is "relieved" they've finally dissipated.
"I got good and heated up today -- it was hot," Pettitte said. "I felt really loose, probably as loose as I've felt all spring as far as my body [is concerned]. This was a bullpen where I was throwing the ball and cutting it loose pretty good."
Both Pettitte and the Yankees were pleased that the back spasms that sidelined the left-hander showed no signs of recurring.
"He was nice and easy," said Wil Nieves, who caught the session. "He was letting it go a little bit. He wasn't throwing 100 percent. He threw everything -- fastball, curveball, slider, changeup -- and threw it real well."
Hours later, when potential fifth-starter candidate Darrell Rasner had a tough time against Houston's lineup, the hope of Pettitte's presence in the first turn of the rotation took on even greater importance.
Pettitte is slated to pitch at the Yankees' Minor League complex on Friday, either in a game or in a simulated game created for him.
"I just need to see some hitters. It's been a long time," he said.
If Pettitte passes that test, he would be projected to be available for the Yankees in their first regular-season series, against the Devil Rays.
Torre has previously cautioned that Pettitte is likely to begin the season behind the other starters in terms of stamina. Pettitte worked no more than five innings in any of his three Grapefruit League efforts, but Torre found nothing but good signs out of Wednesday's mound session.
"I know he was excited about what he felt, just from watching him [Wednesday]," Torre said. "We'll see what Friday is."
Something in the bank: The 2006 performances of both Rasner and Ron Villone continue to weigh into the Yankees' collective decision-making process, which is a positive thing for their hopes of making the 25-man roster.
Unfortunately for both, they also gave the Yankees a few negatives to consider on Wednesday, which is particularly noteworthy because Torre hopes to have his final decisions revealed by Friday afternoon.
Rasner had been enjoying a solid spring, having allowed just two runs in 12 spring innings before surrendering seven runs and nine hits to Houston in 4 2/3 innings on Wednesday.
"Last year, to his credit, he pitched well for us in games that were very important," Torre said. "You can't discount that. But tonight wasn't very good."
Rasner walked two and struck out two, surrendering a solo home run to right fielder Luke Scott.
"The frustrating thing about it was that I was getting beat on secondary pitches, and that should not be happening now," Rasner said.
Rasner was relieved by Villone, who faced three batters and allowed a walk, single and two-run triple before being lifted. A non-roster invitee, Villone has struggled with his command and knows that his potential roster spot is in danger. Wednesday's outing increased his ERA to an unsightly 14.40.
"Time's running short," Villone said. "I don't feel good about it."
Torre believes that Villone has been trying to manufacture velocity on the mound, a similar he was in at this point last spring.
The difference is that Villone had a guaranteed contract in 2006, whereas the veteran likely needs to fend off 27-year-old Sean Henn to earn a trip north this year. Torre said that Villone isn't out of the running yet, but Wednesday's outing gave the coaching staff more to talk about.
"If he wasn't here last year, then it would be tough to even consider him," Torre said. "But with what we know about him and know about his makeup, I think you still have to make a decision with that information being a part of it."
Checking in: Torre said that he sat down on Wednesday for a chat with right-hander Carl Pavano. The Yankees are still not prepared to name Pavano as their Opening Day starter, but with Rasner the only plausible candidate, Pavano appears to be a near lock.
Torre said that the Yankees have not made up their minds completely, but that Pavano has regained a positive, confident attitude that the manager believs had been missing in his recent history.
"He's back, as far as one of the guys that's going to go out there and compete on a regular basis," he said.
Pleading the fifth: Jeff Karstens' chances of breaking camp with the Yankees are alive and well.
The 24-year-old right-hander is scheduled to throw from halfway up the mound on Thursday, his first baseball activities since leaving his start on Saturday against the Tigers with a sore right elbow.
"It's not as stiff," Karstens said. "It doesn't hurt at all."
Torre said that if Karstens comes through his remaining mound work with no ill-effects, he could be with the Yankees on Opening Day. Karstens was sent for an MRI and a CT scan on the elbow, and the Yankees were pleased to find only normal results.
"He could be in the back end of the rotation at this point in time," Torre said. "He hasn't been off that long."
Coming up: The Yankees play the 28th game of their 30-game Grapefruit League schedule on Thursday, traveling to Dunedin, Fla., to play the Blue Jays under the lights at Knology Park.
The first pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET. Steven Jackson (0-0, 9.82 ERA), a right-hander who was acquired in the Randy Johnson deal, will start for New York. Right-hander Shaun Marcum (0-0, 4.85 ERA) counters for Toronto.