The heroic live pitching stunt of Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte. ()
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Andy Pettitte returns for the Yankees on Tuesday night, and just in time.

The Yankees have sixteen games left in the regular season. The prospect of missing the playoffs entirely has largely subsided, now that a faltering Tampa Bay Rays team has lost six of seven, most of those to the Yankees and Orioles. So the Yankees own a 5.5 game advantage over the Rays with 16 games left, and would need to finish behind both the Rays and Orioles to miss the playoffs.

The prospect of losing the American League East is still very real, however. The Orioles are just a half-game back of the Yankees after Monday night, and the difference between winning the division and the wild card is considerable. A division winner gains automatic entry into the American League Division Series; the two wild card winners will face off in a one-game playoff. The Yankee postseason run could be as short as nine innings. And the wild card leader right now, the Oakland Athletics, have a better record, by one game, than the Yankees do. So as of now, that playoff game would be on the road.

So Pettitte does not have the luxury, in his first start since June 27, of simply going out there and seeing what works. He'll be pitching, if he stays on turn, roughly 20 percent of the remaining regular season games, and each one is critical.

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Pettitte is also pitching for something beyond 2012; wanting to go out on his own terms, he's indicated an interest in returning in 2013. That should theoritically interest the Yankees, who don't have a ton of major league ready pitching in their high minors, but they'll need to see that the effective Pettitte in May and June still exists.

All of which is to say that while a pitcher who has missed nearly three months gets back in front of live hitters, he's usually doing so in minor league rehab games. That was not an option here, with minor league seasons over. Instead, Pettitte will be figuring things out on the biggest stage, in games the Yankees desperately need to win.

It is drama of the highest sort, and precisely what the Yankees never figured they'd be dealing with as recently as a month ago.