NEW YORK — They are old, but on Thursday night they were like vintage wine.
Forget that you’re a Red Sox fan and your team lost for the first time this season Thursday night to the dreaded Yankees.
This was a great baseball story — 40-year-old Andy Pettitte pitching as if he were in his prime and his longtime teammate and fellow five-time World Series champion Mariano Rivera, 43, earning the save after being out of commission for a year with a knee injury.
It was Rivera’s 69th save of a Pettitte win, extending their all-time record.
“Well, he didn’t look like an old-timer tonight,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Pettitte. “A lot of early outs, benefited by three ground-ball double plays. He pitched a very good game against us.”
Pettitte said it was imperative the Yankees not be swept at home. He’s been a positive advocate the past few weeks, trying to reinforce to his new teammates that they have time to band together and make something of this season, even with four major players out of the lineup.
Yankee fans were already pressing the panic button, but leave it to two of the old guard to save the day. Pettitte saved eight innings and needed only 94 pitches before Rivera gave up a run in the ninth but preserved the win.
“Nobody hits panic button around here,” quipped Pettitte, who is now 18-3 in 27 Yankees starts trying to avoid sweeps.
“It was important, no doubt about it. Don’t want to lose your first three games, especially at home. Just want to get that win. Your goal is to win each series and winning one out of three isn’t going to cut it, but it’s better than being swept. There are so many new guys here that we just wanted to settle in. They’re all big-league ballplayers. They have talent and we have to bond together. We’re gonna continue to pitch well and help get us toward a World Series championship.’’
Whether Pettitte really means that or whether he’s just trying to say the right thing to rally his teammates, who knows? What we do know is that he pitched an efficient, effective game. He did it without the benefit of his signature cutter, which he said was flat.
Yet he had a good curveball, fastball, and changeup. Few pitches ever landed near the middle of the plate. He had Boston hitters off balance.
“I would say your command has to be good because if you’re in the middle they’re gonna knock you around. I moved it around the corners. Certain counts you can take a little more plate,’’ said Pettitte. “You have to make quality pitches because they have a tough lineup against lefthanded pitching.
“I really wanted to keep my focus sharp. I was overthrowing early because I felt so good. Sometimes I’m better when I’m a little tired.’’
Pettitte seemed buoyed right off the bat when Shane Victorino was called out at the plate trying to score from second base on a wild pitch with Jonny Gomes up, two outs, and two runners on base.
The ball went to the backstop and catcher Francisco Cervelli jogged back after it. When he retrieved the ball, he noticed Victorino was coming and he beat him to the plate. It was an overly aggressive play that cost the Sox a big run and perhaps some momentum.
“Yeah, it was a good heads-up play by [Cervelli],” Pettitte said. “My gosh, I wasn’t going to get there and I see him coming around and they’re gonna score a run. Thank God, he’s got young legs and he’s quick back there and he got back and made the play.”
Pettitte said he had trouble getting loose the last couple of innings because it was so cold. With only 94 pitches, he thought he could have finished, but he was just as happy to see Rivera, who is retiring after the season.
“I feel real secure when you see that guy coming in in the ninth. It’ll be special watching him knowing this is it,’’ said Pettitte. “After this, he won’t be closing any games, but we have a lot of work to do. We have a season to focus on also.
“Someday when it’s over for both of us, we’ll be able to reflect on how great this has been. We’ve had great times here. We’ve accomplished a lot, but I think we both feel there’s more to be done. I know Mo wants to go out with a World Series and we’d love to give that to him.”
Pettitte said he hasn’t stopped to think about his own mortality. He retired once and came back. He was hurt for 10 weeks last season. Now he probably feels as well as he ever has.
“I’m worried about my next start,” he smiled. “I went eight innings tonight, so I’ll get some work in and feel good in Cleveland. I’m not worried about [the future]. I don’t know what I’m gonna do next year. I’m focused on this year and pushing these guys.”
Rivera, who will likely do a major league tour and be honored in various cities, said of his return to the majors, “Not really [different]. The only difference was I waited almost a year. It felt the same. It was wonderful to be there.
“Andy was tremendous,” Rivera said. “That’s the Andy we know.”
Rivera said he had a lot of emotions as he took the mound, but “you have to control them. Still have to finish the game. It was wonderful.”
He acknowledged he might have been a little nervous early on, walking Dustin Pedroia, the first batter he faced. But after he retired Mike Napoli, he said, “I was OK.”
The Red Sox scored a run when Gomes doubled down the left-field line, and Will Middlebrooks grounded out. Longtime observers of Rivera said that it’s very rare that any hitter pulls the ball on him like Gomes did.
He struck out Jackie Bradley Jr. to end the game.
Asked if there was a time he didn’t think he’d make it back, Rivera said, “There were times because the therapy and the pain I wondered if it were worth it coming back. But at the same time, the love, the passion, and drive I have for the game motivated me to keep going.”Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.