Wednesday November 4th, 2009

NEW YORK -- Recently, Andy Pettitte noticed a change in his drive into the Bronx from his home in Westchester.

Or, more precisely, it's what he hasn't noticed.

When the 2009 season began, the veteran left-hander couldn't help but glance across East 161st Street to the old Yankee Stadium on his daily commute to the new ballpark. As the season progressed and the new digs became more familiar, however, his habits changed.

"I haven't been looking over quite as much anymore," he said.

Now charged with winning his third series-clinching game of the same postseason, a feat accomplished once before by Derek Lowe of the 2004 Red Sox, Pettitte takes the mound of new Yankee Stadium on three days' rest in tonight's World Series Game 6, hoping to win New York's first title in the new ballpark -- but he might be better equipped to do it if he were still the Andy Pettitte who made his name in the old Stadium.

Pettitte is the postseason's all-time winningest pitcher (17 wins), who has also won more career clinching games (five) than anyone in history. That body of work is impressive, but it's also extensive, which is a polite way of saying he's not young.

At 37, Pettitte has remarkably put together a 15-year career in which he's never had a losing season, but he isn't quite the paragon of perfect health he was in his first seven years, when he never made fewer than 30 starts. It was, after all, for a serious elbow injury that Pettitte admitted to a few uses of human growth hormone in order to heal more quickly. Most recently, Pettitte skipped a start in mid-September with shoulder fatigue.

In his previous World Series start, in Game 3, Pettitte later confessed to teammates that he had "nothing" on the mound and said roughly the same to the press, admitting that he had been heated up and ready to pitch, until the 80-minute rain delay struck. After that, Pettitte said, he got by on guile and that it was a serious "grind" on the mound. Tonight he'll face old nemesis Pedro Martinez, now with the Phillies, whom Pettitte first opposed 11 years ago.

The very phrase "shoulder fatigue" is not encouraging for a pitcher who's attempting to start on just three days' rest. Even Pettitte admits that fatigue is, of course, the natural primary concern for such a start.

"I guess you'd probably fatigue a little bit quicker than you normally would," he said, "just because your body gets so into a routine of pitching on every fifth day and then you're shortening your rest time a little bit."

The Yankees will have the benefit of closer Mariano Rivera possibly throwing two or more innings, because he won't have pitched in two days, so there's less need for Pettitte to go deep in the game. It's a good thing, too, as the Yankees have babied his left arm for the past two months. Since missing his turn in the rotation, Pettitte hasn't started on fewer than five days' rest, so really, tonight's start will actually be on two days' fewer rest than he's grown accustomed to.

It was interesting to note that in his postgame press conference after the Game 5 loss, manager Joe Girardi invoked a variation on the proviso "if he feels good" three times in a few short sentences, failing to definitively name Pettitte his Game 6 starter.

Girardi did not have any other realistic options, however, as Chad Gaudin would have been only other pitcher under consideration, and he's a journeyman (six teams in seven seasons) with a losing record in his career (34-35) who has throw one solitary inning since Oct. 3. Just because starting Pettitte on three days' rest is Girardi's best option doesn't mean it's a good one. Despite the $200 million payroll, the Yankees apparently couldn't afford a reliable fourth starter. (The Joba Chamberlain experiment hasn't worked out quite as planned.)

To start Tuesday's press conference, Girardi preempted the expected query asking him to confirm his Game 6 pitcher. As Girardi sat down before the assembled media, he leaned into the microphone and announced, "Andy is our starter tomorrow. We'll eliminate that question." Asked what assurance he received from Pettitte, Girardi replied by saying he asked his starter, "How do you feel?"

"He said he felt great," Girardi said. "It doesn't take more than that. This is something that we talked about, and we're still very comfortable doing it, and he's our guy tomorrow."

In his postseason career, Pettitte has made five starts on three days' rest: three exceptional (World Series Game 2 in 2003 and Game 5 of both the ALCS and World Series in 1996), one mediocre (1997 ALDS Game 5) and one terrible (2000 ALDS Game 5). He's also made 14 career regular season starts on short rest, going 4-6 with a 4.15 ERA.

But none of that track record means anything, even though Girardi said Pettitte's history on short rest is "important."

"For me, my mindset is just going to be the same as normal," Pettitte said. "I'm not going to try to blow balls by guys. I'm going to try to pitch like I normally would."

Supporting his pitcher, catcher Jorge Posada stressed that one of the qualities that has made Pettitte such a stellar playoff pitcher is that "he doesn't get away from what got him here."

That's why Pettitte may be successful tonight, if only for five or six innings. He shouldn't suffer poor results from the 3-4 mph drop in velocity that Yankees ace CC Sabathia did in Game 4. (A.J. Burnett didn't suffer a noticeable downshift in speed in Game 5, just location and results.) The difference between 96 and 92 is a matter of being able to blow a fastball by a hitter; falling from 89 to 86, as Pettitte potentially might, is less of a concern, because at that speed, a pitch's effectiveness is mostly a matter of location and movement.

"I don't know how I'll feel," he said. "I know I felt terrible the other night and I was on six days' rest. I just, you know, am going to go as hard as I can for as long as I can."

Pettitte has noted how strange it's been the last couple years not to see George Steinbrenner around the team as much, as the owner's health is failing, because the pitcher fondly remembers seeing him almost daily. Steinbrenner was even fond of writing Pettitte notes to encourage him before big games, often with a Scripture verse.

He likely won't have that handwritten inspiration, but Pettitte does have this -- the realization that he'll have five months to rest his fatigued shoulder before making a meaningful start again.

"We have the whole offseason to rest," Sabathia said. "Leave everything out there."

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