Pettitte rarely lets Yankees down in playoffs

Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte in a 2009 file

Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte in a 2009 file photo. (Credit: David Pokress)

With the lure of retirement certain to tug at Andy Pettitte again this offseason, the lefthander is about to enter what could be his final stretch as a Yankee.

You've heard that before. But this year is different. There's an urgency that's never been a part of this annual storyline. Even the pitching-thin Yankees admit they need him now more than ever. But at the same time, no one - least of all Pettitte - knows just how much he will be able to contribute after two months on the disabled list because of a nagging groin injury.

The only certainty in this equation is what Mariano Rivera referred to as the "trust" that Pettitte has earned from his teammates, his coaches, the front office and Yankees fans beginning in 1995.

That's the given here, and according to Rivera, it's the only thing that matters in the postseason. "You don't see the mental game in people,'' Rivera said. "That's what he brings.''

If it seems as though the 38-year-old has been pitching big playoff games his whole career, it's because he has. Pettitte has recorded more wins (18) and thrown more innings (249) in the postseason than anyone else.

So it's no surprise that the uncertainty that lingers from his absence with the groin injury barely registers inside the clubhouse. Hands down, he's still the one they want out there.

"I've told people a lot he's the biggest winner I've ever played with," said Lance Berkman, a teammate of Pettitte's in Houston from 2004-06 and again this season. "If I had to win one game, he would be the guy I would stick on the mound."

Rivera added, "Put it like this: I haven't seen many like him.''

Even CC Sabathia - the team's undisputed ace - openly refers to Pettitte as the "leader" of the staff.

That's why the Yankees' season took a drastic turn when Pettitte suffered the groin injury July 18. He originally was told he would miss four to five weeks, which he scoffed at, insisting it wouldn't take that long for him to rejoin the Yankees. But his efforts to come back sooner delayed his return until later - nine weeks later.

For a while, he was on pace to back up his optimism before suffering a setback in August that Yankees trainers believe was brought on by his pushing himself too hard in the weight room. They ordered him to stop doing his regular leg exercises, limiting him to light jogging.

Pettitte returned to the Yankees on Sept. 19 and has said his groin injury hasn't been an issue. Every time he says that, Yankees fans everywhere exhale.

"If Andy says he's healthy, then that's all I need to hear," said Joe Robison - and this guy has good reason for believing in Pettitte. Robison is the Yankees scout who discovered the 6-5, 225-pound lefthander as a high school senior in Texas in 1990.

Pettitte was a pudgy kid then - Robison estimated he was about 240 pounds - and he said Pettitte's fastball topped out at only 84 miles per hour. But Robison saw potential in his free-flowing delivery and loved how he competed, so he implored his bosses to draft him. And they did, in the 22nd round.

But if you really want to trace Pettitte's illustrious Yankees career to its true inception, you probably have to go back five years before he was drafted. All the way to the moment in 1985 when George Steinbrenner paid a visit to the Air Force Academy in Colorado to speak to the cadets.

The baseball coach at Air Force since the early 1970s, Robison ushered Steinbrenner around that day. The Yankees' owner wanted to see everything from how neatly trimmed the grass was on the field to how the clubhouse was organized. The Boss had to have been impressed, because on his way out, Robison said Steinbrenner offered him a job.

When Robison later accepted, he remembers Steinbrenner telling him that because of how expansive left-centerfield was at Yankee Stadium, he wanted his scouts to find lefthanded pitchers.

Five years later, Robison delivered Pettitte.

"I remember after Andy signed, I sat down with him and told him that in four or five years, he would be in the majors," Robison said, "and that he would win 250 games."

Pettitte is 240-138 with a 3.88 ERA in 16 seasons.

What Robison didn't predict was how many championship rings Pettitte would win. Pettitte is at five, eyeing his sixth. If that happens, there's very little doubt among the Yankees that Pettitte will have played an enormous role.

"I don't think we can win it without him," Berkman said. "I think he's that important. He's going to have to be back and he's going to have to be pitching well for us to have a chance to win this thing."

Pettitte returned to the majors last month in time to make three final starts, and they had more of a spring training tune-up feel to them. When he gave up seven runs (six earned) and 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Red Sox in his second start, the Yankees responded with something akin to a shrug.

"I'm not going to panic," manager Joe Girardi said. "Andy has a track history of being really good as time goes on."

In a perfect world, Pettitte would have preferred more innings to get his stamina, location and cutter back to midseason form. He was 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA when he was injured, and the Yankees were 15-3 in his 18 starts. But when it's time for him to make his first postseason start, there's no doubt his hat will be pulled down to just above his eyes and that familiar stare at the hitter will be back.

And at that moment, everything will seem normal for the Yankees. They'll gladly take their chances from there.

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