Bronx, N.Y., February 3, 2011 — We all have our favorite Andy Pettitte moments. How to pick one or two? For me, it’s actually rather easy. When it comes to Andy P, think Peter O’Toole, because 1996 is My Favorite Year. Any Yankee fan who has been watching this team since that stunning season could easily point to magical Game 5 of the World Series, October 24, when the young Yankee southpaw stunned baseball by outpitching a superb John Smoltz in a 1-0 Yankee win in Atlanta.
The win put the Yanks within nine innings of the team’s first championship in 18 years, a promise Jimmy Key would fulfill two days later in the Bronx. But to me, the glory was that Andy pulled this magic off four days after imploding vs. the same Braves team in New York in a 12-1 Atlanta victory. Already up 2-0, the visitors drove Pettitte from the mound in the third inning with five singles, a sac bunt, and a walk. Four days later the confident Atlanta batters didn’t know what hit them as they saw a totally different pitcher.
But Pettitte had established a template for this kind of comeback performance almost six months earlier. Arriving in Baltimore to play two midweek games vs. the first-place Orioles 1.5 games back in the standings on April 30, the young Yankees, in Derek Jeter’s rookie year, took the field convinced they could beat anyone, a feeling quickly put to the test when Pettitte had one of “those” innings. After retiring three straight in the first, Andy was reached for a home run, single, walk, single, single, single in a second inning that gave the home team a 9-2 lead. Somehow the scrappy visitors jumped on Arthur Rhodes and four relievers for a stirring come-from-behind 13-10 win, a victory that put them in a position to play the Orioles for the AL East lead the following night.
Neither Kenny Rogers nor David Wells (an Oriole!) had much that day, and the game went to extras tied 6-6. But the visiting team, who had dipped into their bullpen after three measly outs the day before, ran out of arms. Or they did until a tall lanky lefty warmed up in the bullpen in the top of the 13th inning. Sure enough, Pettitte emerged from the pen roughly 26-plus hours after being humbled in Camden Yards. Raffy Palmeiro, the next to the last hitter to batter him the day before and first to face him this time, singled sharply, but like the grizzled veteran he would become, Pettitte coaxed double plays following leadoff singles in the 13th and the 14th frames, and cashed in the win when new Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez hit a grand slam home run in the 15th inning.
So what’s the lesson of those two-game roller coaster rides with Andy Pettitte in 1996? Well, opponents learned that beating Andy is a mixed blessing at best. And the adventure back then has kept me focused on and anticipating his starts ever since. It’s going to take some time to unlearn that.