WASHINGTON -- Andy Pettitte turned 40 on Friday, and since his return to the team from a short retirement, his impact on the pitching staff couldn't have been more complete. It hardly seemed possible a month ago, but after Phil Hughes bested the Nationals, 7-2, on Friday night, Yankees starting pitchers lead all of Major League Baseball with 32 wins. "It's been great to have [Pettitte] around," said Hughes, who has only lost once in seven starts since Pettitte returned. "He's a guy I leaned on my entire career until last year. He brings a lot of experience, and he's great with everyone around here. It's been nice having him back."
There's no question that having Pettitte around has stabilized the rotation. Before he returned, the fourth and fifth spots were a dark hole from which the Yankees couldn't seem to climb out. As April turned to May, Pettitte virtually replaced Freddy Garcia, who was relegated to the rear end of the bullpen. Pettitte has won three times in five starts since his return against the Mariners on May 13. After a dismal April, Hughes has had a big rebound and is 6-1 his last eight starts. That's nine wins from the back of the rotation in the past six weeks, as opposed to one for the first month. It's no wonder the Yankees have won seven in a row -- all in Interleague Play against the National League East -- and 12 out of 14 overall to pull a game and half ahead of Baltimore in the American League East. During that stretch, 11 of those wins have been credited to a starter. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova are tied with a quartet of other pitchers for the AL lead with eight wins each. Hughes has seven. Hiroki Kuroda, the other member of the starting five, just notched his sixth win of the season on Wednesday night at Atlanta. "Everyone has stepped up," said Joe Girardi, who notched his 500th win as a Major League manager on Friday night and drank a rare glass of champagne afterward to celebrate it. "We've gotten a lot of wins from a lot of guys in our rotation." The win stat for a starter has come under siege in recent years as being one metric that doesn't ultimately portray the value of a pitcher. To be sure, Yankees starters are tied for 18th in all of baseball with a 4.16 ERA, and are eighth with 389 1/3 innings pitched, which tells you all you need to know about run support and the fine work of the bullpen. Even without the injured Mariano Rivera and David Robertson, who returned from the disabled list with an oblique strain on Friday night, the bullpen is third in baseball with a 2.71 ERA, obviously preserving all those wins. The 'pen has only been credited with six of the club's AL-high-tying 38 victories. Offensively, even though the Yankees have struggled with runners in scoring position, they are tied for sixth in MLB with 300 runs scored. The pitchers have allowed only 249, and with a run differential of plus-51, that is where all the current success lies. There's no question that the deeper a starting pitcher goes into a game, the better chance he has of helping his club win, and thus recording a victory for himself. Baseball writer Bill Chuck pointed out recently in his blog that of the first 516 games this season in which a starter went seven innings or more, their record was 305-97 with 114 no-decisions. In the Yankees' case, the first month of the season might have been a distorted view of what the starting staff would contribute over the long haul. "I just think our starters were better than the way they were pitching," Girardi said. "Eventually they were going to get to where they were supposed to be, and that's what we've seen happen. A lot of times guys get off to fast starts. A lot of times they get off to slow starts. There's no rhyme or reason. But they seem to be pitching the way they're capable of now." And then along came Pettitte after more than a year out of baseball, and with him the experience of 243 regular-season wins, 19 more in the playoffs, playing on eight teams that went to the World Series and five that won it all. He gives the Yankees grit, determination and, if he remains healthy, that potent left-hander behind Sabathia in the postseason rotation they didn't have last October. "He contributes on the field and off the field, there's no doubt about it," Girardi said about Pettitte. "He has a lot of wisdom. He understands the expectations here. He understands what it's like to be a young player and what it's like to do it year after year. He's very helpful." He's grayer now, but pitching with a youthful ease, energized from the time off. Before Friday's game, Pettitte said that since his return, he worked with Hughes to have the right-hander hide the ball better as it comes out of his hand, so that he doesn't tip pitches. Hughes acknowledged that he made the adjustment. The results for Hughes and the staff are there for all to see.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.