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Pettitte paints another playoff masterpiece

NEW YORK -- He's been peering over that glove and pitching these humongous October baseball games for so long, it sometimes seems as if Andy Pettitte has been a Yankee since the days of Berra and Mantle and Ford.

OK, so it turns out he wasn't here before Steinbrenner. And he wasn't double-dating with DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. And the architects of the Stadium never actually considered calling it The House That Pettitte Built.

Still, Andy Pettitte has been a Yankee long enough to win 13 postseason games. And make 29 postseason starts. And beat nine different teams in the October games that determine whether his team's seasons will be considered successes or disasters. So no wonder it's so hard to remember a time when he wasn't a Yankee.

Nevertheless, it isn't Pettitte's past that hangs over every start he makes this October. It's his future.

The clock is ticking now on Pettitte's career as a Yankee. Whenever this World Series ends, his ties to the Yankees end. Which meant The End might have come on a frostbitten Sunday night in The Bronx, with Pettitte doing what he always seems to do this time of year -- rising to meet just about every moment the Yankees thrust him into.

This time, in the Yankees' 6-1 Game 2 win over the Marlins, Pettitte was within one out of the Yankees' first complete-game World Series shutout since Ralph Terry, in Game 7, 1962.

This time, Pettitte was within one out of becoming the second Yankee in history to be the winning pitcher in three World Series shutouts. (The other was Whitey Ford, who won four.)

This time, Pettitte was within one out of becoming the first pitcher to throw a World Series shutout on three days' rest -- for anybody's team -- since Jack Morris hung 10 zeroes on the Metrodome scoreboard on an unforgettable Game 7 evening in 1991.

Which is one way of saying that a lot of great trivia sure got blown up by an Aaron Boone error, with two outs in the ninth, that allowed the Marlins to keep playing long enough to score their only run. But nothing was going to ruin a night that even Petttitte himself described as "special."

Those 55,000 people at Yankee Stadium weren't standing and screaming in the ninth inning Sunday because it was the only decent alternative to hypothermia. They were standing because they couldn't be sure if they'd ever see the man on the mound wearing pinstripes again.

So that chant rippling through The Stadium -- "Annnnndddy, Annnnnndddy" -- wasn't just about one night's work. It was about nine years' work, by a guy who was never the loudest Yankee or the glitziest Yankee, never the guy authoring the books or chewing up the back-page headlines.

No, all Andy Pettitte has been all these years is just the most dependable Yankee.

"Andy has been under the radar in the eight years I've been here," said Joe Torre, another Yankees fixture whom Pettitte managed to predate. "There's always been somebody. David Cone was here. (Roger) Clemens came aboard. Boomer (David Wells). There's always been someone that probably was a little more high-profile than Andy. But he sort of likes it that way."

When Torre walked through the door of the Bronx Zoo in 1996, Pettitte was a 23-year-old left-hander sharing a rotation with Dwight Gooden, Jimmy Key, Cone and Kenny Rogers. It turned out to be Pettitte who outwon them all that year.

Then, when they flipped the calendar to October, Pettitte won the clinching game in the ALCS against the Orioles, then outdueled John Smoltz in a spectacular 1-0 game in Game 5 of the World Series. That was the night he announced to America what he was all about. And those announcements still keep on coming.

"We always feel confident with him going out there in these games," said Derek Jeter. "He's good at blocking things out. He knows how to take it pitch by pitch and hitter by hitter."

Pettitte is 31 now. But not much has changed. In all three postseason series this year, the Yankees have lost their opener at home, then sent Pettitte out there in Game 2 to straighten out their compass. Three times, he's won. And this time he even did it on short rest. But that's not new, either. In Pettitte's six career postseason starts on three days' rest, he's now 3-1, with a 3.24 ERA.

"Every time we start one of these series by going down, 1-0, we always answer back by pitching him," said Jason Giambi. "What he's meant to our ball club, I can't even put into words. All year long, when we needed to dominate in a big ball game, he's been there."

You watch him out there, rocking back in that smooth, deliberate delivery, and he always seems in total control. Of course, after nearly 180 postseason innings, he ought to have this act down by now.

"There's something about this guy," said backup catcher John Flaherty. "Every time he seems to get in trouble or give up a hit, he knows he's always one cutter away from a double-play ball. I think that's one reason he's able to pitch so relaxed. He knows that if he gives up a hit or two, a double play gets him out of it."

He may have done it more quietly than the decibel-charged characters around him, but Pettitte is now tied with Smoltz for the most postseason wins in a career, with 13. He's also up to ninth on the Yankees' all-time regular-season win list, with 149.

But if Sunday really was his final start as a Yankee, Pettitte's victory at The Stadium was a more significant milestone than many people realized. For all he's done in the great baseball cathedral in The Bronx, this was the first World Series game he'd ever won there, believe it or not.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau's Ken Hirdt, the only two pitchers in history with more wins as a Yankee who didn't own a Series win at Yankee Stadium were Bob Shawkey (168) and Pettitte's current pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre (164).

So if Pettitte really does choose to move on, once the Free Agent Express stops by his door next month, he can move on knowing he truly has done it all as a Yankee -- well, except write a best-seller, anyway.

Oh, he understood what was up in that ninth inning, when all those people were chanting his name. But even if he knew this was goodbye, he also knew this was no time to announce it.

So when the subject of his free agency came up afterward, he soft-shoed around it, saying: "I hate to talk too much about that stuff right now, because there's a lot to be done still. And, again, we'll worry about all that when everything is over."

But his teammates are worrying about it now -- mostly because there are approximately 9,000 media folks hanging around their clubhouse, encouraging that openly.

Even Jeter, who measures his words more carefully than the Secretary of State, said it would "be kind of awkward if he wasn't here." And Flaherty, who has spent the last nine years playing with or against Pettitte The Yankee, almost turned green when asked if he could even imagine the Yankees without him.

"I can't, after playing against him all these years and now playing with him," Flaherty said. "It's hard to imagine that a few years ago, they were talking about trading him to the Phillies. He's just got all that postseason experience here, all that big-game experience. And he's taken it to a new level this year."

Obviously, if it were up to the Yankees, they would trip all over Steinbrenner's checkbook to keep him. But those who know Pettitte are making it more and more clear this might not be about the owner's collection of dollar bills.

Pettitte is a creature of habit and comfort. And while that might seem to favor a return to The Bronx on the surface, a lot could depend on everything about Boss Steinbrenner except his penchant to outspend Guatemala.

Pettitte doesn't exactly need to stop by a Time Square psychic's parlor to see that his manager -- of whom he said Sunday, "I love him like a father" -- has gotten so Steinbrennered out that even if he isn't fired, he'll never stick out the life of Pettitte's next contract.

Same with his pitching coach, Stottlemyre. And now Pettitte's closest friend and mentor, Clemens, is heading for the ranch in Texas. So what exactly is there to bring Pettitte back, aside from a chance to hit the lottery and win another 10 or 20 postseason games?

Although the Red Sox, Phillies and Orioles would gladly welcome him to their towns, Pettitte has continuously sent signals he would prefer to move somewhere as close to home (Deer Park, Texas) as possible.

His kids are now 8, 5 and 2 years old. And his wife, Laura, is said to be anxious to stop the not very conveniently located Deer Park-to-Texas commute. So if the Rangers or, especially, the Astros are willing to get creative this winter, don't be shocked if Pettitte is amenable to being just as creative to meet them halfway.

But in the meantime, if it's dollars he's after, then every one of these heroic October starts -- heaped on top of 21 regular-season wins -- figures to just help him accumulate a whole bunch of them.

"He's making money for the Pettitte family," said Clemens. "No doubt about that. He can buy another ranch if he wants to."

Well, Andy Pettitte just might. But first, apparently, he wants Boss Steinbrenner to buy him something -- one more ring.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com