- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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ST. LOUIS -- Andy Pettitte is an All-Star pitcher, but he would be a terrible poker player, someone who betrays his feelings without saying a word. When reporters started rattling off questions about how a freak pregame injury might have affected him in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, Pettitte shoved his left hand into his pants pocket.
And he started shaking some coins.
Did the knee bother you, Andy? Jingle, jingle. "We took care of it," he said, dismissively. "I was just terrible."
Was the knee sore? Jingle, jingle, jingle. "I was just terrible," he said.
How much did it affect you? Jingle, jingle, jingle. Jingle.
He took the mound with a sore right knee numb from pain-killer, and whether it was just a bad day or that his knee was swollen or he simply lost focus, Pettitte was terrible, his stuff flat, his velocity down a notch, his location off, in a 5-3 loss to the Cardinals. He allowed five runs in six-plus innings, more runs than he had surrendered in any start since June 14, and Pettitte was frustrated after the game, staring off, still simmering about the kind of bad luck that can shift a playoff series entirely.
Pettitte was taking batting practice before the game, and after completing his round of swings, he moved around the bases, as is the routine. Roy Oswalt, the Astros' starter for Thursday's Game 2, was next in the cage, and as Pettitte was running from second to third, Oswalt whacked a line drive directly at the left-hander.
"I saw it the whole time," Pettitte said. "I tried to get out of the way of it."
He couldn't. As Pettitte tried to skip over the ball, the liner smacked off the inside of his right knee. Pettitte immediately left the field and went in for treatment, getting some medication for the swelling that immediately developed in the spot where he had been hit. Pettitte assumed he would make his start -- "I just figured, some how, some way," he said -- but at the time when most pitchers are focusing on scouting reports or some other part of their pregame routine, Pettitte was having his leg, the one on which he lands at the end of every delivery, treated by doctors.
"It's unbelievable," Pettitte muttered.
The code shared by most players is that if you're good enough to play, then injuries are irrelevant, nothing but an excuse. Pettitte took the ball and took the mound, and from the start, he had very little with which to combat the Cardinals. David Eckstein whacked his second pitch for a single, and then Pettitte fell behind the next hitter, Jim Edmonds, two balls and no strikes.
Brad Ausmus, the Houston catcher, says Pettitte is easy to catch, because he's right on target; you give him a sign, he nods, he throws the ball where you want, you just throw it back, and he does it again. But Pettitte kept missing his spots, running a full count to Edmonds before enticing him into a pop-up.
Albert Pujols swung at a curve and drove a deep fly ball to left field for the second out, and even with that, Pettitte didn't feel comfortable; he usually gets ground balls, as he mused later, and the Cardinals were all lifting the ball.
Reggie Sanders, who set a Division Series record by driving in 10 runs in three games, was next, and fell behind one ball and two strikes. Ausmus called for a cut fastball inside, at the hands. When Pettitte is right, he will often splinter the bats of right-handed hitters with this pitch.
But he missed the target, leaving the ball over the plate. Sanders swung and seemed to lift the sellout crowd from the Busch Stadium seats, because he had launched a monstrous home run and everybody was suddenly standing and wondering how far the ball would go. Sanders knew, skipping out of the batter's box: Far enough for two runs, a homer. The ball fell among some scattered patrons in the restaurant located in left-center field, Homer's Landing, an estimated 445 feet from home plate.
The Cardinals added another run in the second inning, two more in the fifth, Pettitte's good stuff never materializing the six innings he pitched. Even on most of his bad days, he'll find a sinker he can use and grind his way through, but Pettitte had nothing.
"He wasn't quite as sharp as we've seen him," said Astros manager Phil Garner. "I think [the knee injury] had a little effect on him. I applaud him for getting through it, but I think it probably had a little effect on him during the game, and that's one reason he didn't locate as well as he has been here recently."
Somebody asked Pettitte if the injury would affect him in his next start, and he answered quickly, without jingling the change.
"I don't foresee me missing a start," he said. "No chance."
How does it feel now, Andy?
Jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle. "It's a little sore," he said.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.