Although they were in the unusual and uncomfortable position of gazing directly upward to find the Boston Red Sox in the late August standings, the Yanks had a certifiable big-game pitcher, Andy Pettitte, going for them in the opener of their series with the Red Sox.
Out of all the statistics you could use to support Pettitte's work in difficult and/or critical times, the most direct one was perhaps his record entering Tuesday of 68-33 immediately following a Yankees loss. Seeing that the Yankees had lost to the Detroit Tigers, 16-0, on the previous night, seeing that they were eight games behind the Red Sox as this series opened, this time qualified as both difficult and critical.
Petttitte was, as usual, up to the task. And so was the veteran core around him. The result was an absolutely essential 5-3 victory for the Yankees on Tuesday night.
Pettite got the victory. Derek Jeter supplied a solo home run. Jorge Posada drove in a run with a double. Mariano Rivera got the save with a perfect ninth. What was this, the late 1990s? The biggest hit of the game was by another veteran, but not a Yankees lifer, Johnny Damon, whose two-run home run in the seventh supplied the winning margin.
But the whole thing was made possible by Pettitte's typically strong work in a pressure-packed, vital situation. The Yankees' situation coming into this game absolutely begged for a strong starting performance. They were coming off a 2-5 road trip. They were coming off an embarrassing defeat. And what had once been a mere four-game deficit in the standings had doubled in what seemed like a matter of minutes.
Andy Pettitte was precisely the man for these sorts of circumstances.
"Andy is so professional," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "When he's on the mound, there's a lot of things swirling around him, but he keeps his focus and doesn't complicate things for himself."
For the night, Pettitte, winning his sixth straight start and running his record to 12-7, gave up three runs on six hits with two walks, striking out six over seven innings. It was not an overwhelming performance, but it was winning work.
The low point of Pettitte's night was Jason Varitek's home run leading off the seventh that created a 3-3 tie.
"The guys picked me up after I gave up that run in the seventh," Pettitte said. "It killed me to make that mistake."
But, as Torre pointed out, perhaps one of the most telling aspects of Pettitte's performance was the fact that after Varitek's homer, Pettitte retired the next three batters in order to preserve the tie. The game knocks everybody down a peg or two occasionally, but you can tell the good ones by the way they keep getting back up.
Pettitte was asked numerous questions about the "stopper" role and patiently explained, again, how he doesn't look at it exactly that way. "I don't put that much pressure on myself," he said. "I'm thankful I was able to give us a good outing."
But he had watched the debacle in Detroit, and the situation in the standings was all too apparent. What Pettitte knew here, whether that added up to "stopper" or not, was that the Yankees desperately needed a fresh start on Tuesday night. And the only one who could really supply that would be the starting pitcher.
"You want to set the tone again," he said. "I want the guys to know that I'm going to be aggressive in the strike zone."
He was that against a tough Boston lineup. This one victory does not in itself change the nature of this season, but it allows that Yankees to take a deep breath and go forward, toward what they hope is October.
"Our goal is to try to win as many games as we can and see if that is good enough to get us where we want to go," Torre said. It is both as easy and as difficult as that.
The Yankees have baseball's highest-scoring offense, but they're not going anywhere in particular unless they get some order and some consistent competence restored to the starting rotation. Andy Pettitte's performance against the Red Sox not only produced a necessary victory, but it provided a pitching direction: It has to be this way, guys.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.