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World Series | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

It's Pettitte's Turn to Shine Again

October 20, 2003|Ross Newhan

NEW YORK — It has been noted how the New York Yankees' improbable comeback against the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the American League championship series provided Roger Clemens with the opportunity to extend his career into the World Series and end it with a more positive performance.

In the shadow of the Rocket, as he has often been in the shadow of one marquee Yankee starter or another, Andy Pettitte also received a reprieve from the Game 7 rally.

At 31, coming off a 21-8 season in which he matched his career high for wins, Pettitte certainly isn't thinking about retirement, but free agency beckons.

Thus, while Clemens will make the final start of his Hall of Fame career in Game 4 of the Series on Wednesday night in Florida, it is conceivable that Pettitte made his final start as a Yankee in Game 2 Sunday night.

And if that's what it was, Pettitte made the most of it in more ways than one.

Despite working on only three days' rest as the exhilarated and exhausted Yankees continued to put their rotation back in order after Game 7 and the arm-sapping Boston series, Pettitte dominated a team that has dominated left-handed pitchers.

He gave up six hits and an unearned run in 8 2/3 innings of a 6-1 victory that got the Yankees even in the best-of-seven series and enabled him to improve his postseason record to 13-7, equaling John Smoltz's postseason record for wins.

It also did little, of course, to hurt Pettitte's bargaining power -- no matter if that bargaining is done with the Yankees, the Texas Rangers or Houston Astros, or some other pitching-hungry team.

"It would definitely be awkward seeing him in another uniform," Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter said.

Such as the Angels?

Well, the acquisition of a front-line starter is a priority in Anaheim, and there is an assortment of free-agent possibilities.

Among them are Bartolo Colon, Greg Maddux, Sidney Ponson and Kevin Millwood.

In reality, probably only Colon and Pettitte represent the combination of stature, age and durability fitting the Angels' criteria.

The economics?

Pettitte made $11.5 million this year, the option year of a four-year contract.

With those 21 wins in the regular season and now 3-0 in the postseason, Pettitte could move into the Maddux and Kevin Brown territory of $15 million a year.

Pedro Martinez, who moves up to $17.5 million next year, would be the only pitcher ahead of him, depending on the contract Maddux receives as a free agent.

Whether the Angels under Arte Moreno have the flexibility to satisfy Pettitte's contract demands while also acquiring a shortstop and/or right fielder to improve the offense is uncertain.

It also is uncertain whether Pettitte still is consumed with the probability of vying for a World Series ring as a Yankee each October or has had his fill of the Bronx and is determined to find employment closer to his suburban Houston home.

This much is clear:

With Clemens leaving, David Wells turning 40 in April, Jose Contreras having been a $32-million disappointment and Jeff Weaver imploding and virtually disappearing from the Yankee landscape, owner George Steinbrenner has to come up big in an effort to retain the only pitcher to win at least 12 games in each of his first nine major league seasons.

Where does Pettitte stand on all of this? Has it been difficult keeping it out of his head, the idea he could be making his last start or two as a Yankee?

Well, he said, his focus has been on helping his team win another championship and he "owes it to the Yankees and fans not to get distracted. I've been asked about it so often that it pops into my head at times, but I feel I've been pretty successful in staying on track."

He was so successful at it Sunday night that he shut down a team that was 29-11 against left-handers this year (the best record in the majors), won Game 2 for the third time in an October in which the Yankees have lost Game 1 in each of the three series, and mocked the fact that postseason pitchers working on three days' rest over the last three years had gone 4-15 with a 6.59 earned-run average.

Pettitte admitted that he was concerned about his stamina before the game and even "fighting myself, thinking I might have to change my approach."

Clemens set him straight.

"I told him, 'You're a horse, why do you think we worked so hard in December, I know you can come back on three days' rest,' " Clemens said.

"I told him, 'You've got the arm, the legs, the stuff. You're our best pitcher by far.'

"I felt real proud watching him today."

Only a two-out error in the ninth prevented Pettitte from throwing a shutout in the longest of his 29 postseason starts.

A crowd of 55,750 was chanting his name at the end as if trying to convince him to stay, to remind him of what it can be like at Yankee Stadium.

If the Series does not return to New York, does not go to a Game 6 that he would start, he definitely will have made his last start of 2003.

All of that, Pettitte said -- the chanting, seeing longtime former teammate Paul O'Neill throw out the honorary first pitch, knowing what October means here, thinking of Manager Joe Torre as a father and always indebted to him for helping convince the Boss not to trade him in 1999 -- "is very special and will play a part in any decision I make, but that's for later."

This is now, and the seven innings that Wells worked in Game 1 and the 8 2/3 by Pettitte in Game 2 have enabled the Yankee staff to recoup from the championship series and allowed closer Mariano Rivera to get the blood circulating in his arm again after pitching three innings in Game 7.

For Pettitte, who has pitched under the radar, as Torre put it, of David Cone and Wells and Clemens and Mike Mussina, among other Yankee starters, he will soon be in the radar of another kind, the object of a high-priced manhunt.

There were no clues how it will turn out on a night when the Marlins couldn't solve him either.

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