Monday, October 18, 1999

Pettitte rewards Yankees' faith




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BOSTON — Andy Pettitte proves there is room for sentiment in baseball. Crying, no. Sentiment, yes.

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        The left-handed pitcher of the New York Yankees is still in pinstripes primarily because of nostalgia, not performance. When there was a move to dump him before the trading deadline this summer — a move endorsed by Yankee own er George Steinbrenner — manager Joe Torre refused to give the go-ahead. His memory was too long, and too fond.

        Torre kept thinking of what Pettitte had meant to his team in October of 1996, when he beat the equally brilliant John Smoltz, 1-0, in Game 5 of the World Series. Torre kept think ing there was something in this guy worth salvaging.

        “Every time I was asked my opinion, we were strong in favor of keeping Andy,” Torre said. “That didn't mean we were going to keep him, but it got to a point where (Steinbrenner) said it would be my decision. We made it and I'm glad that we did.”

        Torre was talking before Sunday's fourth game of the American League Championship Series, before Pettitte pitched 7 innings in the Yankees' 9-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, before the Yankees seized a 3-1 lead.

        The final score would not suggest this was a particularly heroic performance on Pettitte's part, but the Yankees scored six of their runs in the ninth inning (otherwise noteworthy for an eight-minute crowd control delay). Andy Pettitte never threw a pitch with more than a one-run lead.

        “He was something,” Torre said later. "This ballpark is tough to pitch in. He got himself in jams, got out of jams. He made some great pitches. It was a huge, emotional game for us.”

        Pettitte would trail, 2-1, after yielding single runs in the second and third innings, but Derek Jeter saved him a third-inning run by throwing out Jos e Offerman at the plate on a relay from center fielder Bernie Williams. Pettitte would not allow another Boston hitter beyond first base. He allowed eight hits, walked one, struck out five and left the game with a postseason ERA of 1.84.

        “I felt like I was in trouble every inning,” Pettitte said. “Or it seemed like that. The fans were really into it and it was hard to control your emotions.”

        It was the kind of high-pressure pitching Torre had been counting on, the kind Pettitte seemed incapable of producing the first half of the season.

        Through 16 starts, Pettitte was 5-7 and carried an alarming ERA of 5.59. But with the passing of the July 31 trading deadline and all the speculation that surrounded it, Pettitte re turned to his capability.

        He went 9-4 down the stretch, and moved himself ahead of Roger Clemens and David Cone in the Yankees' playoff rotation against Texas. Pettitte beat Texas in Game Two of the division series, yielding only a single run, encouraging Torre to trust him with Sunday's start -- this despite the historic difficulties of left-handed pitchers in Fenway Park.

        In the wake of Pedro Martinez' dominance of Roger Clemens Saturday, the Yankees' need for a classic Pettitte performance was unusually keen. A Boston victory would have squared the series, and given the Red Sox a significant psychological edge with Martinez looming in a possible Game Seven. Instead, the Yankees must win only one of the next two games to avoid Pedro and claim the pennant.

        Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but it still comes in handy from time to time. For Andy Pettitte, it has made all the difference in the world. Maybe the World Series.

        “I really don't think the trading deadline was affecting me,” Pettitte said. “I felt like mechanically and mentally I was a little beat up. When I was able to get the location on my two-seam fastball, I think that was the reason I was able to turn my season around.”

        Torre sees Pettitte's progress as more of a cause-and-effect proposition. Once the trading deadline passed, Pettitte was able to pitch with peace of mind. He stopped nibbling so much at the strike zone and began to throw pitches with real bite.

        “To me, Andy was obviously not the same pitcher (before the deadline),” Torre said. “He went out there tentatively. I think there was a lot going on in his mind. I think that all of the talk of him maybe being traded might have had something to do with it. It was just a matter of how aggressive he was going to be.”

        Sunday night, Andy Pettitte was plenty aggressive. It was a good night for nostalgia.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE