Saturday, October 31, 2009
Southpaws in the spotlight
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- The cut fastball is Andy Pettitte's signature pitch. But if there's such a thing as a signature Pettitte image, it's the televised money shot of the big Texan with his cap pulled low, his glove covering half his face and his eyes locked in on catcher Jorge Posada's mitt to the exclusion of all other worldly concerns.
"Focused" would be an understatement. SWAT team sharpshooters are more gregarious during hostage negotiations.
Pettitte, who will start Game 3 of the World Series for the Yankees on Saturday night, developed the routine in the minor leagues as a way to tune out fans, hot dog vendors and the team mascot in the stands. Much as Dave Stewart defined intensity for young right-handers with big league aspirations, Pettitte embodied the term "tunnel vision" for a generation of young lefties.
"He's a big guy, man," Yankees reliever Phil Coke said of Pettitte, who stands 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. "He's this massive presence already, and if you have some guy staring at you like he's going to rip your head off, you're going to take notice."
Andy Pettitte, who will make his 39th career postseason start in Game 3, is baseball's all-time postseason wins leader with 16.
The roster of Pettitte's acolytes includes Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who grew up in San Diego admiring Tom Glavine for his big-game nerve, Randy Johnson for his death stare and Pettitte for a mixture of both.
"When all you see is his eyes, he's definitely focusing really well," Hamels said. "And he has something up his sleeve."
On Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, Hamels gets a chance to watch Pettitte burn a hole through Posada's mitt from the opposing dugout and the batter's box. The rest of the time, he'll have more pressing concerns on his mind.
The Yankees and Phillies led their respective leagues in runs, homers and slugging percentage this season, but starting pitching continues to be the focal point of the 2009 World Series. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee did some wall-to-wall dealing in Game 1 and gave Cleveland Indians fans a severe case of wistfulness compounded by agita. In the second game of the series, the Pedro Martinez "Fountain of Youth" tour hit the Bronx, and A.J. Burnett manned up with seven superlative innings for the victory.
With the Phillies and Yankees tied at one win each, we've now reached the Southpaw Central generational battle portion of the program.
In this corner: Pettitte, Roger Clemens' old sidekick, looking to add to his major league-record 16 postseason victories. After a personal appeal from general manager Brian Cashman to return for another year, Pettitte gave the Yankees a nice, reliable 14-8 record with a 4.16 ERA during the regular season.
He's been even better in the postseason, working into the seventh inning three straight times against the Twins and Angels. And based on the stats, the Phillies have a challenge awaiting them in Game 3. Raul Ibanez (6-for-21), Ryan Howard (1-for-9) and Chase Utley (1-for-7), Philadelphia's three power-hitting lefties, are batting a combined .216 against Pettitte.
In the other corner: Hamels. He was a middling 10-11, 4.32 this season, and his performance in the playoffs bore little resemblance to the one in 2008, when he helped carry the Phillies through October and won the World Series MVP award. He lasted a total of 14 2/3 innings in his three playoff starts and allowed a whopping six homers and 11 runs in the process.
Naturally, Hamels is facing a battery of questions in conjunction with the drop-off. Interested observers wonder if his lack of a consistent curveball is holding him back, and if he's experiencing a physical hangover from his 262 1/3-inning workload of a year ago.
TALE OF TWO HAMELS
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Hamels points to Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett and other young starters who have experienced career hiccups, and considers it a natural part of the growth process. But as the sensitive and introspective sort, he feels the weight of expectations.
"There's the mental burden which can kind of wear you down week after week of not being able to go out there and do what you're expecting to do -- and what everybody else expects you to do too," Hamels said.
In contrast, Pettitte has the entire drill down pat. After 15 seasons and 2,926 innings, he's comfortable in hostile environments, oblivious to expectations and precisely in tune with what he needs to do to be successful.
That includes coping with the ravages of age. According to Fan Graphs, Pettitte's average fastball velocity this season was 89.0 mph -- exactly the same as Randy Wolf and just a tick above Zach Duke, Jarrod Washburn and John Lannan. Pettitte averaged 89.1 mph in 2002, so he's never been a pure velocity guy. But the drop-off is more pronounced with his slider and his cutter, which have both declined about 2 mph from his 2004 season in Houston.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who got his fill of Pettitte during his previous life as hitting coach and manager in Cleveland, thinks the Phillies' best chance of success will come if they're patient and don't get too "swing-happy" against Pettitte.
"He's a lot like anybody else who ages," Manuel said. "I think his stuff is kind of starting to dwindle down, and he has to be a pitcher. When he's living out on the corners and his command is good and he uses his pitches, that's when he pitches his good games."
At 37, Pettitte has learned to tailor his routine to counteract the debilitating effects of a long season. When his shoulder started aching in September, he was sufficiently in tune with his body to alter his bullpen work and make other adjustments for the sake of the long haul. He's cut back significantly on between-starts long tossing, for example.
"As I've gotten older, I've realized that I can't do quite the workload as far as running or heavy lifting, just because it would take a little too much of a beating on my body," Pettitte said. "I'll try to make adjustments in the course of a season."
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As Hamels noted during a frank and insightful media session Friday, that's a concept he's still trying to embrace. He's had to deal with the increased demands of celebrity, and admittedly thought himself into a box last winter with his preparation. Hamels said he became "a little paranoid" at times, wondering if he was working too hard or not hard enough.
He's spent a lot of time seeking counsel from veteran teammates Jamie Moyer, Lee and Martinez on how to handle the ups and downs of the job, but a young pitcher can only hear so many people tell him to "trust his stuff" before he realizes he's out there on an island alone.
Of course, one stellar performance in a pivotal Game 3 will be enough to make everybody forget Hamels' 6.75 ERA in the National League playoffs.
"Like [Ted] Williams says, every at-bat is an adventure," Manuel said. "Every time Cole goes out and pitches, it's an adventure. But I know he has the talent to shut them down, and I've got a lot of confidence in him. I think he's going to do good."
All four starters have been good in this World Series, and now we have a classic contrast of lefties on the biggest stage. It will be Pettitte, the veteran, with his stoic demeanor and trademark cutter, taking on Hamels, the kid, with his thoughtful, mature approach and that exquisite changeup.
Two pitchers 11½ years apart and linked by a mutual goal and opportunity are ready to take the mound Saturday in the quintessential "statement" game.
May the better lefty win.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.