Pettitte could be better than Beltran

ATLANTA -- Isn't it funny how The Guy Who Isn't Here -- some guy named Beltran -- comes up in so many conversations about the Houston Astros this October?

But maybe it's The Guy Who Wasn't There last October who could turn out to make the bigger impact on a franchise whose previous 43 seasons all had one thing in common: They ended somewhere other than a World Series.

That Guy Who Wasn't There Last October went to the mound Wednesday in the Astros' 10-5 mashing of the Braves in Game 1 of their NL Division Series. You might have recognized him.

His name is Pettitte. First name: Andy.

And as you watched him unfurl seven innings of four-hit baseball Wednesday, on the way to his eighth win in a row, how could you not throw at least one little What Might Have Been out there into the Atlanta breeze:

What might have been for this team if Andy Pettitte had only been able to make it to the mound last year this time -- when the Astros still had Carlos Beltran around to hit an October home run every darned day, whether he needed to or not?

"I've said this many times: I wish we had last year's lineup and this year's pitching staff," said Astros catcher Brad Ausmus. "And stick this year's Morgan Ensberg at third base. That would have been a team for the ages. But you know what? We are who we are. And this year, we make a living on starting pitching."

And if that's the way they have to earn it, nobody anywhere does it better.

The stat sheets will tell you that this year's Astros scored 110 fewer runs than last year's Astros. But there are other ways to make a living -- and other ways to make it into the great baseball Octoberfest.

And if you're riding a rotation to October, there is no better rotation to saddle up than this one.

How good were this team's starting pitchers? Not only did they have the lowest ERA of any rotation in baseball (3.46). But there were only nine non-Astros starters in the whole National League who had a lower ERA than this entire group had combined.

These Astros start the parade with their own personal living legend (Roger Clemens). They also have a spare 20-game winner hanging around the neighborhood when they need him (Roy Oswalt). But it's possible that the best of them all was that Guy Who Wasn't There Last October -- Pettitte.

"I've been saying this over and over to anyone who would listen," said GM Tim Purpura. "I think Andy has been our MVP. He's the guy who has made the biggest difference."

Now hold on. Think about that statement a second.

It seems almost impossible that Pettitte could have made a bigger difference than Clemens, a certifiable franchise-changer. Or Brad Lidge, their Human K-Mart of a closer. Or Ensberg, the Hank Aaron Award finalist who cranked 36 homers -- and drove in five runs Wednesday.

But let's consider just how good Pettitte has been lately:

• Since Aug. 16, he's 8-0, with a 1.86 ERA.

• Since the All-Star break, he's 12-2, with a 1.82 ERA.

• Since June 20, he's 15-2, with a 1.67 ERA.

And over all of those spans, that's more wins and a better ERA than any starting pitcher in his league.

It's also, very possibly, the best stretch of his career. Which might come as a shock to a whole lot of New Yorkers.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Pettitte never compiled an ERA lower than 2.41 in any healthy three-month slice of his nine-year Yankees career. So this, officially, is as good as it has ever gotten for one of the best, and toughest, left-handers of his time.

But the always-modest Pettitte wasn't ready to make that claim Wednesday, hard as we media geniuses tried to coax it out of him. He seems to recall that somewhere along the line, he "had a few good years in New York where I went on a good stretch."

He did concede one point, however: "I don't know if I've ever felt so consistent and felt so comfortable with my mechanics," he said, "as I have from the beginning of the season till the end of the season."

And that, he said, goes back to "The Surgery."

Yes, it was just over 13 months ago that Pettitte headed for Dr. James Andrews' office in Alabama for The Surgery that put the torn flexor tendon in his elbow back together. It was a surgery that did more than just leave his future uncertain.

It was a surgery that meant, for the first time in 10 years, a baseball postseason would go on without him. And heck, until last year, we weren't even sure that was allowed by federal law.

But the Astros made it to Game 7 of the NLCS anyway, had a lead in the sixth inning with Clemens on the mound, and just had to hold on for 10 more outs to get to the World Series.

They couldn't quite close that deal, of course. But it might not even have come to that if they'd been able to find someone slightly more imposing than the now-out-of-baseball Pete Munro to start Game 6 of that NLCS.

Someone, say, like Andy Pettitte.

"If Andy had been part of it last year, I think we'd have gone to the World Series," said Lance Berkman. "I'm not going to say we'd have won the World Series, because obviously, it was Boston's year to win it. But I think we'd have gotten there."

And had they gotten there, there's a pretty good chance Pettitte might have known what to do next -- since he has started 10 World Series games, started 31 postseason games altogether and strung together a 14-8 postseason record over 10 Octobers. That's tied with John Smoltz, a man who will start against Houston on Thursday, for the most postseason wins in history.

So you know that there never has been any living human who was less delighted to have the best seat in the house to watch a team like the 2004 Astros almost make it to the World Series. But Pettitte never, ever complained then. And he never, ever complains now. Which is just one more reason his teammates root shamelessly for him these days.

"Andy's a gentle giant," Berkman said. "He's one of the greatest guys I know. He's one guy I could be around every single day, and he'd never get on my nerves. But he's not so gentle on the field. ... Andy is probably the best competitor I've ever been around. If you look at him, obviously he's got real good stuff. But he's not overpowering. The way he beats people is, he just out-competes them."

And that sums up how he did it Wednesday, in a game in which "he really didn't have his best stuff," Ausmus said.

Pettitte even allowed two home runs in this game -- to Chipper and Andruw Jones -- an event that comes around about as often as the Comet Kohoutek. It was the first time Pettitte had served up more than one homer in any start since July 26, 2004 (36 starts ago).

But you could almost see That October Look lock itself into Pettitte's eyeballs after he allowed that Andruw Jones homer -- a two-run fourth-inning rocket which, amazingly, was Jones' first hit with a man in scoring position since (no kidding) Sept. 13.

It was 4-3 when that ball came down. But over the final three innings he was out there, Pettitte gave up precisely zero hits.

That gave the Astros a chance to pull away again, as Atlanta kept pitching around Berkman and Ensberg kept knocking in runs. He drove in a run in four different trips to the plate -- three of them against Tim Hudson. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that made Ensberg just the fifth player in postseason history to drive in a run in three different at-bats against the same pitcher.

(The others: Jimmy Sebring vs. Cy Young in the 1903 World Series, Will Clark off Greg Maddux in the 1989 NLCS, George Brett vs. Catfish Hunter in the 1978 ALCS and Dan McGann off Andy Coakley in the 1905 World Series.)

But as cool as that feat was, it was the man on the mound who was the story of this game -- and could well be the story of this postseason.

It's a real safe bet that Pettitte won't quite match those eight home runs Beltran bopped in last year's postseason -- even though Pettitte did crunch a double over Brian Jordan's head Wednesday. ("I know it's shocking," Pettitte laughed. "It shocked me.")

But even if he never gets another hit, his team would be willing to take that Pettitte-for-Beltran swap, even up, and see what happens.

"Obviously, Carlos' impact was tremendous on last year's postseason," Ausmus said. "But pitching has always been the most dangerous thing any team could have in the postseason, historically. So all I know is, if this series comes down a Game 5 and Andy Pettitte is able to pitch, you could make a great argument that he'd be as important to us in this year's postseason as Carlos Beltran was last year."

And if this postseason takes another plot twist, we might make that argument anyway. After all, how many innings did Carlos Beltran pitch last October?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.