When you think strikeouts, names like Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan immediately come to mind. Andy Pettitte, not so much.
But in three of his five starts since returning to the Yankees, he has racked up a significant amount of strikeouts.
Tuesday night, Pettitte recorded 10 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings in a 7-0 victory over the Rays.
Pettitte turned in his 14th career regular-season double digit strikeout game. It was his first since June 5, 2010 at Toronto and first at home since July 6, 2003 against the Red Sox.
“I really don’t try and strike guys out,” Pettitte said. “But I feel like I’m able to keep guys off-balance an awful lot right now. My command was really good tonight and I only left a couple of balls over the heart of the zone all night long.
“I’ve been telling you all along I’ve been real happy with the command and feel of all my pitches. I didn’t think it would come back so quick.”
Through five starts, Pettitte has accumulated 32 strikeouts, with 27 coming during his three wins. That is the highest total during his initial five starts in any season, surpassing the 26 he had in his first five starts of the 1998 season.
“He had everything today,” manager Joe Girardi said. “His slider was very good today. He got some lefties away with it, some right-handers down and in. I thought he used his fastball effectively. He threw some really good curveballs. I thought he was really, really good.”
Pettitte has struck out over 20 in his first five starts nine times, but only twice had reached 25. Besides 1998, he struck out 25 in his first five starts of 2010 when he went 11-3 in a season interrupted by two months on the disabled list with a groin injury.
“Maybe the strikeouts a little bit more than the strikes [are surprising],” Girardi said. “I think Andy’s always been pretty consistent. I really believe that he went home and probably threw as much BP as he would have during the course of a season.
“Sometimes it can physically help you because you don’t have the stress level. You’re keeping your arm in shape. You’re trying to throw strikes to your kids and you’re not trying to knock them down. You’re just trying to throw them good pitches and I think it helped.”
Facing the Rays for the first time since suffering that groin injury, Pettitte allowed just two singles and four base runners overall. He gave up an infield single in the fourth to B.J. Upton and a base hit to Carlos Pena in the fifth.
Before those hits, Pettitte mowed down Tampa Bay hitters with the assistance of an adjustment on his two-seam fastball. The adjustment pitching coach Larry Rothchild discovered in his pregame bullpen session was not about his grip or release point, but Pettitte said it was something that gave him the confidence to get 17 strikes on 21 two-seam fastballs.
“I think if you throw it more, it’s going to get better, but mechanically I think I got a little something that Larry told me in my bullpen that I thought was going to help me,” Pettitte said. “You don’t know whether to trust it or not during a game, but when you throw it you start to get confidence in it.
“I really hadn’t been using it much this year, but today it was really running nice. I used it pretty good today.”
He struck out B.J. Upton on a 3-2 cutter for the second out of the first inning. With a man on base, Pettitte recorded the final two outs of the second by getting left-handed hitters Pena, on a 1-2 slider, and Luke Scott, on a 1-2 fastball.
In the third, Pettitte struck out the side. He retired Jose Molina on a full-count, outside fastball, set down Elliot Johnson on a 0-2 cutter and finished off the frame by getting Desmond Jennings on a 1-2 slider.
Pettitte’s next five outs were not strikeouts, but with two on in the fifth he retired Johnson again, this time needing just three pitches before getting the swing and miss on an 0-2 slider.
His eighth strikeout was an outside fastball that retired Jennings for the first out of the sixth. It occurred after Jennings fouled off five of 10 pitches and was Pettitte’s only called strikeout.
For his ninth strikeout, Pettitte got Pena to chase a pitch that appeared well out of the strike zone. His last strikeout was getting Scott on a check swing. That also sent him to the dugout with a standing ovation from the crowd, which also loudly chanted his name.
While Pettitte was taking care of Tampa Bay’s offense, the Yankee offense gradually got to James Shields. Shields allowed seven runs (five earned), seven hits and four walks in five innings.
The Yankees scored two unearned runs in the first and then made life easier for Pettitte in the fourth when Russell Martin hit his fourth career grand slam.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.