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MINNEAPOLIS -- Andy Pettitte was making the Minnesota Twins look smaller than a rosin bag with his fastball, cutter and curve, and it was a crying shame George M. Steinbrenner III was not around to see it.
In the summer of '99, Steinbrenner nearly traded Pettitte to the Phillies because he thought the left-hander was a little too sensitive and a lot too soft. Brian Cashman and Joe Torre talked The Boss off the deal, and all these years later the New York Yankees are a far stronger organization for it.
Sure, Pettitte spent those three seasons with his hometown Astros, dodging the playoff poxes that visited his former team's house in 2004, '05 and '06. But would Pettitte have felt the same yearning to return to the Bronx four years back if Steinbrenner made that bygone deal with Philly? Would Pettitte have forever sworn off the Yanks as the franchise that betrayed and stranded him at the first sign of distress?
|Andy Pettitte always seems to come up big in October, and he did so again Thursday night.|
Thursday night, these were Target Field questions nobody in the visiting clubhouse cared to field. Pettitte seized his 19th postseason victory, more than any pitcher dead or alive, and he did it after making the following confession to his teammates:
"I have never felt so unprepared going into the playoffs."
This from a 38-year-old man trying to rebound from an injured groin and a stiff back. This from a starter who had missed a couple of months. This from a guy who was busy a few weeks ago pitching for the Trenton Thunder, trying to win a playoff game against the world-famous Altoona Curve.
"And he was worried about blowing Trenton's playoff chances," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "That tells you a lot about Andy Pettitte's character."
This 5-2 victory over the Twins told you a lot about Andy Pettitte's belief in himself.
"It seems like this is just his time," CC Sabathia said. "He shows up every time we need him. He's a bulldog when he's out there, and he never seems to get nervous or let the game speed up on him."
Pettitte actually confessed that, yes, he does indeed get nervous before a postseason start. "I ask the Good Lord to calm my nerves and help me relax," he said. But his poise isn't only a divine gift.
The enemy crowd plays a role, too. Like in the second inning, bases loaded, one out, the crowd shaking Minnesota's new ballpark to its core. The Twins had lost 10 straight playoff games, seven of them to the Yanks, and these otherwise neighborly Midwesterners had seen enough of the New Yorkers and their eight-figure wages.
The fans were trying to rattle Pettitte, and they were oblivious to the fact their noise had the opposite effect.
"When this place starts rocking and the fans are going crazy," Pettitte said, "[you're] hoping you get the tunnel vision. Just nothing is going to faze you. Nothing is going to make you nervous. ... Whenever things get louder out there, I almost feel like I can slow it down even more."
So Pettitte turned this potentially lethal second-inning threat into a superficial wound. He surrendered a sacrifice fly, nothing more.
"One run is not going to kill me," Pettitte said.
No, it only made him stronger.
Pettitte retired the next dozen Twins before giving up Orlando Hudson's game-tying homer in the sixth. The Yankees scored twice in the seventh after Carl Pavano didn't get the strike three on Lance Berkman that the Padres' Mark Langston famously didn't get on Tino Martinez in the '98 World Series, and the Twins quit on command.
They don't believe they can beat the Yankees, and for good reason: They can't.
Minnesota's leadoff man, Denard Span, set the positively perfect tone in the first by greeting Pettitte with a 10-pitch at-bat that included five straight foul balls and a hard single as an exclamation point. Old man Pettitte appeared to be in for a long (or short) day (or night), at least until he got Hudson to hit the ball back to him two pitches later, starting a here-we-go-again double play.
"Andy's not fazed by too much," said Derek Jeter, who isn't, either.
Pettitte struck out four and held the Twins to five hits and one walk over seven innings. That's the good news. The better news? In the highly unlikely event he has to start a Game 5, Pettitte should be fresh -- he threw only 88 pitches in Game 2.
But he threw them, losing manager Ron Gardenhire said, "pretty doggone good."
When it was over, when he was done getting showered and dressed, Pettitte handed a clubhouse attendant a folded stack of small bills and offered him a fist bump as an extra tip. The winning pitcher was wearing a "Hip Hip Jorge" T-shirt, a nod to his catcher, Jorge Posada, who had seen this movie before.
Pettitte wasn't Doc Halladay out there, but he did plenty for his legacy all the same. Pettitte is undefeated in his past nine postseason starts, and he has a chance to push his career victory total into the 20s. The Hall of Fame is within reach, even if Pettitte's admission of human growth hormone use remains a significant hurdle to clear.
That discussion is for another day. Cooperstown or no Cooperstown, Pettitte showed again Thursday night why he will go down among the toughest competitors the Yankees have ever dressed.
Too bad The Boss wasn't around to shake his hand.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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