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10/12/09 1:05 AM EST

Pettitte channels past playoff greatness

Lefty ties Smoltz for wins lead, steering Yankees into ALCS

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Girardi was there in 1996 when Andy Pettitte came of age on a national stage, outdueling John Smoltz in a classic World Series Game 5. He was there for much of that decade, growing up with Pettitte and catching more of his games than anyone other than Jorge Posada. And now, he is here again, sitting in the dugout, managing his pitcher and friend.

So when Girardi saw Pettitte climb onto the mound for Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Sunday, he knew immediately what the left-hander was planning to do.

"You know when he has that stare," Girardi said. "He's able to pitch in big games and nothing is going to faze him -- not the surroundings, not the 55,000 fans here, not the noise. He's been through it so many times, and he knows how to bounce back. He's just a clutch performer."

In one of his sharpest outings since he returned to the Yankees in 2007, Pettitte struck out seven Twins over 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball, vaulting his team to the AL Championship Series against the Angels and etching his own name deeper into the postseason record books.

"You have to have great pitching," Pettitte said. "You see when you get to the postseason, it's just hard to score. It really is. You think you might be able to have a pitcher where it might be easier to get some runs off of, but guys turn it up. The focus goes up. It just seems like every run is precious in the postseason."

Too humble of course to harp on his own performance, Pettitte instead let his numbers speak for him amidst the champagne celebration.

With the victory, the 15th of his postseason career, Pettitte, 37, tied Smoltz for the most in Major League history. He broke a tie with Tom Glavine for the most playoff games and innings in history and moved into third place in strikeouts, now trailing just Smoltz and Roger Clemens.

Dandy Andy
Andy Pettitte's postseason ranks after earning the win in Game 3 of the ALDS
Category Total Rank
Wins 15 1st (tie)
Starts 36 1st
Innings 224 2/3 1st
Strikeouts 146 3rd

"The way Andy pitched tonight -- he's been in these situations before," said fellow left-hander CC Sabathia, who considers Pettitte a mentor. "You just knew he was going to go out and have a great game."

Perhaps it was strange, then, that Girardi yanked a clearly focused Pettitte with one out in the seventh, after he had thrown merely 81 pitches. Rather than have Pettitte face Delmon Young -- a strong hitter against left-handed pitching, but 0-for-2 with two popups in the game -- one more time, Girardi called on right-hander Joba Chamberlain, who promptly served up a double to Young.

Pettitte, so sharp for the Yankees all evening, was left to sit in the clubhouse and hope that his bullpen could hold what was then a one-run lead -- a mission it ultimately accomplished. Had Pettitte remained in the game, he may have been able to throw the sort of October gem that fans remember for a lifetime. How might 1996 have turned out, for example, if Pettitte had left after 6 1/3?

Amazing Andy
Pettitte's career stats in ALDS action
Year Opp. W L IP H R BB K
1995 SEA 0 0 7 9 4 3 0
1996 TEX 0 0 6 1/3 4 4 6 3
1997 CLE 0 2 11 2/3 15 11 1 5
1998 TEX 1 0 7 3 1 0 8
1999 TEX 1 0 7 1/3 7 1 0 5
2000 OAK 1 0 11 1/3 15 5 3 7
2001 OAK 0 1 6 1/3 7 1 2 4
2002 ANA 0 0 3 8 4 0 1
2003 MIN 1 0 7 4 1 3 10
2007 CLE 0 0 6 1/3 7 0 2 5
2009 MIN 1 0 6 1/3 3 1 1 7
Total 5 3 79 2/3 82 33 21 55

It is difficult to second-guess decisions, however, when the ultimate outcome involves champagne and an early flight home.

"Andy is used to pitching in these situations, and he was great -- he was as good as we have seen him all year long tonight," Girardi said. "Delmon Young has been someone who has had some success off Andy, and I know Andy had handled him to this point, but my gut told me to go to Joba in that situation."

And then to Phil Hughes, and then Mariano Rivera, who promptly sealed off the win. It was a game in which not just Pettitte, but the entire so-called Old Guard -- Pettitte, Rivera, Derek Jeter and Posada -- shined. Aside from Pettitte's efforts and Rivera's four-out save, there was Posada's go-ahead home run in the seventh and Jeter's heads-up play to kill a Twins rally in the eighth.

"There is no doubt it makes it special -- it makes it a little sweeter," Pettitte said.

"These guys are used to playing at this time of the year, and they seem to relish the moments," Girardi said. "They seem to enjoy the moments together and what they have been through, coming up together, in a sense. And they know how to play this time of year."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.