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Saturday, October 31, 2009
Pettitte knows his way around this stage

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- He has won more postseason baseball games than any pitcher who's ever lived. But Andy Pettitte has never won a postseason baseball game quite like this.

"You know, I may have," Pettitte would say afterward, scratching his head and racking his brain after the 17th postseason victory of his life. "But I can't remember winning a game where I've struggled like I did [in Game 3 of the World Series]."

You want to know what it looks like to see Andy Pettitte struggle in a gigantic postseason ballgame? Here's exactly what it looked like:

Five outs into his memorable Saturday evening, he was three runs down. He'd already huffed and puffed his way through 50 -- yep, that number was 50 -- pitches. And he looked like a bigger threat to be heading for the nearest shower stall any second than for the winning pitcher's spot on the interview-room podium three hours later.

But when a man has spent his whole career pitching on the October stage, his heart doesn't pump at 4,000 beats a minute at times like that.

Andy Pettitte, Jason Werth
Andy Pettitte fell behind 3-0 early in Game 3, but he didn't fall apart.

When a man has started more World Series games than anyone in history not named Whitey Ford, he doesn't feel the ballpark shaking, doesn't hear those 46,000 people shrieking.

And so, on the final night of October 2009, on the most important night of his season, Pettitte found a way to do what he had to do:

Survive.

He made it through that second inning. Somehow. He made it through four more innings after that. Somehow.

He even got what might have been the biggest hit of the night. Somehow.

And because he did, because he did what he has been doing in these postseason baseball games for 15 increasingly historic seasons, the New York Yankees have now taken control of this World Series.

For the first time since Game 3 of the 1999 World Series, the Yankees thundered from three or more runs behind to win a World Series game Saturday night. They beat the Philadelphia Phillies 8-5. They took a two-games-to-one lead in this World Series.

Now, they have CC Sabathia heading for the mound on Sunday. And they've put themselves into perfect position to take that first ride down the Canyon of Heroes in nine years.

But two innings into Game 3 of this World Series, we never thought we'd be typing those words. Two innings into Game 3 of this World Series, we never thought we'd be telling you the story of how Pettitte outdueled last year's World Series MVP, Cole Hamels.

Not after Pettitte had wriggled out of a first-inning mess, then served up a leadoff homer to Jayson Werth in the second. Not after a double, a walk and a misplayed bunt filled up the bases immediately thereafter.

Not after Pettitte then walked Jimmy Rollins with the bases loaded to make it a 2-0 game. Not after Pettitte then let Shane Victorino loft a sacrifice fly that made it a 3-0 game, as Citizens Bank Park erupted into official World Series bedlam.

Maybe if Pettitte were 25, like Cole Hamels, we might be telling you a whole different story right now. Maybe he'd have let those near-disastrous first two innings unravel him the way a close ball-four call and a fly ball off a TV camera clearly discombobulated Hamels.

But Pettitte is 37, not 25. And this was the 38th postseason game of his life. So there's a reason he was able to hold it together Saturday night and give his team a chance to turn this World Series around:

"Experience," said his catcher, Jorge Posada.

And not just postseason experience, either, Posada said. He drew his hands wide to form a large circle.

"Experience," he said. "Every kind of experience."

He has been catching Pettitte for a million years now. So Posada has seen virtually all of that experience unfold before his eyes. He knows what it means. And he knew what it meant to the Yankees on this night.

Not far away stood another man who has been playing alongside Pettitte for so many years now, you could almost swear they go back to the days of Ruth and Gehrig, or at least Berra and Mantle.

That man was Derek Jeter. And as he watched Pettitte find a way to keep the Yankees afloat Saturday, another word came to mind.

"He's comfortable," Jeter said. "He's been in those positions before. It's not the first time he's pitched in the World Series. It's not the first time he's won a game. It's not the first time he's pitched on the road. He's been in pretty much every situation you can think of. And he's had success. So he's comfortable in those spots."

But if the man on the mound looked comfortable from the infield dirt and the catcher's crouch, little did Jeter and Posada know they'd just been sucked in by an optical postseason illusion.

From the outside, maybe Pettitte looked as if he had this thing under control. But on the inside, the guy holding the baseball felt like he was slipping out of a roller-coaster car at nearby Six Flags Great Adventure.

"It was a grind for me [Saturday]," he said at one point.

"It was a battle," he said at another point.

Asked later when he thought he'd found some rhythm and felt it fall into place, he laughed and said, "It never really felt like it fell really good in place."

So as he stood out there on the mound in that second inning, three runs in and two runners on and Chase Utley stomping toward home plate, Pettitte knew what needed to be done. He just wasn't sure he was capable of doing it.

"You're thinking, 'I've given up three. Don't give up another one,'" he said. "I was frustrated … and I'm thinking, 'You've got to go six or seven [innings] right here. You can't give up another one.'"

Posada saw that look on his friend's face and trotted to the mound. He found a guy 60 feet away who didn't want to chat. What Pettitte wanted was to pitch, not talk.

"He said, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go,'" Posada recalled. "And he's telling me to go get behind the plate. And I'm trying to calm him down."

So Posada patted him on the rump and U-turned back toward the box. And out on the mound, Pettitte yanked down his cap, raised his glove to the bridge of his nose and went to work.

He fell behind Utley 2 and 1. The house shook. Utley rocked in the box. Pettitte's eyes turned steely.

He poured in a fastball on the hands, and Utley fouled it off. Then Pettitte wound, dropped a slider on the outside corner for strike three and burst toward the dugout, feeling as if he'd just starred in a remake of "The Great Escape."

"It was tough," Pettitte said. "I'm not going to lie to you. I couldn't put the ball where I wanted to. I wasn't getting it down and away consistently like I wanted to. … I wasn't able to throw my curveball for strikes. It was an absolute grind [Saturday]. That's for sure."

His 17 postseason wins are the most of any pitcher in history. But here's how the other 16 differed from this one:

Never once, in any of them, had he fallen that far behind at any point and wound up as the winning pitcher. And with Hamels seemingly in his October 2008 groove, there was no reason to think that was about to happen on this night, either.

Asked afterward whether he was able to draw on all his past postseason success to get him through this mess, Pettitte shook his head.

"It's hard to draw on past success or whatever when you're standing out on that mound and the ball is not going where you want it to," Pettitte said. "When Jimmy [Rollins] was up there, I was trying to throw the ball on the outside corner, and it just wasn't going there.

"You know, it's a grind when you're out there and you're by yourself. There's not a whole lot of anything that can help you, except just trying to just keep battling and keep trying to get it there."

But before the next round of that battle, Pettitte got back to the dugout after the second inning, and Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland was waiting for him.

"Dave really got on top of him," Posada said, "and told him to get a little shorter with his breaking ball and get on top with his fastball. … After that, he really calmed down. He got a little shorter on his pitches. And he was a lot crisper. He really made good adjustments."

Andy Pettitte
Andy Pettitte pitched and hit -- yes, hit -- his way to a Game 3 win.

And because he did, this game abruptly turned upside down. After Alex Rodriguez's contribution to postseason-replay history made it a 3-2 game in the fourth inning, it was Hamels who lost his magic touch. But who knew that the blow that would put him over the edge would be delivered by a career .134 hitter by the name of Andy Pettitte?

With Nick Swisher on second and one out in the fifth, Pettitte thunked a hanging first-pitch curveball into center field to tie this game. And unbeknownst to him, he'd just become (a) the first Yankees pitcher to drive in a run in a World Series game since Jim Bouton in 1964 and (b) the first AL pitcher to drive in the tying run in a World Series game since Boston's Jose Santiago in 1967.

So when you consider those historic implications, you'd have a tough time believing that hit would NOT turn out to be the offensive highlight of Pettitte's night. But that was coming right up, two hitters later, after a single by Jeter had moved him to second and Johnny Damon then thumped a double up the gap in right-center.

There was no doubt Jeter was going to be able to score on that hit. The only suspense was whether he might have to pass Pettitte to do it.

"I could have caught him," Jeter chuckled later. "And make sure you write that. I could have caught him, but it would have been embarrassing. So say I slowed it down on purpose."

OK, we wrote it. And we said it. But now it's time to also write, and say, that this was only the second run Pettitte had scored in the past three years. So he's not exactly known for his resemblance to Rickey Henderson. And to his credit, Pettitte was the first to admit that harrowing trip around the bases was a definite commentary on his wheels. Or lack thereof.

"I have no wheels at all," he quipped. "I know that. I'm very slow. I mean, VERY slow."

Well on this night, at least he was quick enough to score the (gulp) winning run. But more importantly, he was tough enough to hang in there on that mound, make it through six innings, allow just one hit in his final four innings and give his team a chance.

And the Yankees knew exactly what they were supposed to do with that chance.

Meanwhile, the team on the other end of this score knew it had let its own golden chance slip right through its hands -- thanks to an October warrior named Andy Pettitte.

"We had him where we wanted him for a hot minute," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins would say a long time later. "Oh well."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.