HOUSTON — Andy Pettitte felt better than he had in a long time, going all the way back to his final game with the New York Yankees almost 18 months ago.
He pitched like it, too.
Pettitte allowed only a solo home run to Reggie Sanders in a strong six-inning season debut, and Mike Lamb’s two-run triple in the bottom of the eighth sent the Houston Astros to a 4-1 win against the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday.
“It was great to go back out there and not pitch with a lot of pain,” Pettitte said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to go out there and not hurt. It makes you appreciate your health.”
Chad Qualls pitched two perfect innings and Brad Lidge got three outs for a save to help Houston break a three-game losing streak against the Cardinals, dating to Game 6 of the NL championship series in October.
Coming off an elbow injury that ended his season last August, Pettitte proved that those painful days of 2004 might finally be behind him. The most recent time Pettitte looked this good, he was wearing pinstripes and pitching in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series.
He showed little rust against the Cardinals despite the long layoff, retiring the first nine he faced before giving up a single to David Eckstein to lead off the fourth.
“He kept us off-balance,” Sanders said. “We didn’t know what to expect because he’s been out so long.”
In the fifth, Sanders sent Pettitte’s curveball off the wall in left field, but Pettitte recovered, holding the Cardinals to one more hit before Qualls replaced him to start the seventh.
“He kicked it up a little when he had to do it,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “It was a marvelous job.”
Pettitte even made it safely through his two at-bats, both strikeouts, which were the start of all his troubles during his Houston debut last season.
He tore a tendon in his elbow in that game, went on the disabled list twice, missed eight starts with a sore arm and hardly resembled the guy known as one of baseball’s best postseason pitchers.
Pettitte finally decided to have season-ending surgery in August, forcing him to miss the playoffs for the first time since he was a promising 22-year-old in the Yankees’ minor league system.
Now 32, Pettitte is eager for a chance to make up for his absence during the Astros’ run through the postseason last year.
“I wish I had been there to take some of the heat off Roger (Clemens) and Roy (Oswalt),” he said. “It’s just a good situation, just disappointing I wasn’t there to help those guys out.”
His return was certainly worth the wait for Astros fans, though. The crowd of 28,496 heartily cheered Pettitte as he left the mound at the end of the fifth.
The Astros struggled to pull away until Lamb’s triple in the eighth. Rookie center fielder Willy Taveras, the 23-year-old replacement for Carlos Beltran, followed with an RBI single off to chase Julian Tavarez and give Houston a 4-1 lead.
Tavarez took the loss, allowing three runs on four hits.
“He just hit it in the right spot,” Tavarez said of Lamb’s shot to right-center. “It wasn’t my best pitch. We weren’t playing him to hit it there.”
Astros fans clearly relished the sight of a beaten Tavarez, lustily booing him as he trudged back to the dugout. Tavarez became a target of fans in Houston during Game 4 of the NLCS when he threw a fastball over Jeff Bagwell’s head. He was later fined $10,000.
“It’s a great thing,” Garner said. “They remember him in the playoffs. It was fun then and it was a lot of fun now.”