By Ryan Chatelain
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There was the Pettitte who, as he puts it, “laid an egg” in Game 1. And then there was the one who pitched an all-time gem under enormous pressure in the pivotal Game 5.
The first outing came after the 24-year-old left-hander had been chosen by manager Joe Torre over more battle-tested veterans Jimmy Key, David Cone and Kenny Rogers to open the World Series against the Atlanta Braves.
For Pettitte, it was a childhood dream come true to pitch in the Fall Classic. But no one ever dreams of failing so miserably on the world’s largest stage.
PHOTOS: Andy Pettitte’s 1996 Season
The normally composed southpaw admits he let his nerves get the best of him during the opener at Yankee Stadium. He didn’t even make it out of the third inning and allowed seven runs and six hits in what turned out to be a 12-1 shellacking.
“I felt like I basically lost that series because our bullpen had to come in and pitch so much,” Pettitte recently told WFAN.com. “I felt like the Braves’ starting staff was so strong and that we really needed to win Game 1.
“I built it up too much instead of going out there and relaxing and just slowing the game down. When I came off that mound, it was like ‘what just happened?’ I didn’t even remember what my pitch sequences were.”
The Yankees lost 4-0 the following night, and their title hopes appeared bleak. But by the end of Game 3, the momentum had begun to shift, and before you knew it, the Bronx Bombers had tied the series at two games apiece. That meant Pettitte was able to take the mound again and have his shot at redemption.
And he delivered.
Pitching at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, Pettitte outdueled John Smoltz, who weeks later would be named the National League Cy Young Award winner, in a 1-0 classic. Cecil Fielder provided all the offense with a fourth-inning double that plated Charlie Hayes.
Pettitte’s final line: 8⅓ innings, five hits, no runs.
His performance was highlighted by a stellar defensive play in the sixth inning when, with runners on first and second bases and no outs, he bare-handed a Mark Lemke bunt and fired to third base to narrowly get Smoltz out. The next batter, Chipper Jones, then grounded into a double play, as Pettitte escaped the jam.
After John Wetteland recorded the final two outs in the ninth, Pettitte had officially buried the misery of Game 1.
Looking back, that reversal of fortune from Games 1 to 5 was not surprising to Wetteland, the Yankees’ closer and World Series MVP in 1996. He said Pettitte was not the kind of pitcher to dwell on his failures.
“Andy was a guy who always knew his strengths, even young,” Wetteland said. “Yeah, that first start and everything like that — he’s the type of guy who’s going to take inventory of that and go, ‘OK, this is how I’m going to go about my business’ and then pitch a gem. That kind of sums up Andy Pettitte.”
Pettitte went on to pitch 16 more seasons in the majors, and win more than 250 games and five world championships. He played in eight Fall Classics and is baseball’s all-time winningest postseason pitcher. But he said he still considers Game 5 in 1996 the proudest moment of his career and one he often used as a reference point years later.
“That’s the gold standard for me was that game,” said Pettitte, who along with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, made up the Yankees’ famed “Core Four.” “No matter what happened in my career after that, I knew that I wouldn’t be in a tougher situation. I couldn’t have had a worse start in Game 1. … Any time I struggled in any situation and I thought, ‘I can’t get it right, I can’t right this ship,’ I could always look back at that and say, ‘Man, look, you did it right here under that pressure.’”
Pettitte enjoyed a breakout season in 1996, just his second year in the majors. He went 21-8 with a 3.87 ERA and finished a close second in AL Cy Young voting behind Toronto’s Pat Hentgen.
But Pettitte downplays the success he enjoyed so early in his career.
“We had a terrific bullpen,” he said. “We just had a good team, good defensively. We scored runs. It was one of those years where I thought things just kind of worked out for me. I got in a good slot where I was just getting a lot of wins.”
Pettitte also earned the reputation as a stopper after he recorded four wins in August and September that followed the Yankees losing two or more consecutive games.
“When we needed a big game for him to win, he always came through,” said Mariano Duncan, the Yankees’ starting second baseman in ’96. “Every time that we had a three- or four- or five-game losing streak, he just came back and stopped the losing streak. And when you’ve got a pitcher like that, that you believe is every time he comes to the mound going to give you an opportunity to win, there’s nothing better than that.”
But things did not always come easily for Pettitte — in fact it was quite the opposite. On April 30 of that season, Pettitte was brutal in a start at Baltimore, allowing nine runs, eight hits and two walks before being pulled with no outs in the second inning.
The next night, the Yankees found themselves locked in an extra-innings affair with the Orioles. Pettitte convinced Torre to let him enter the game in the 13th inning. He went on to pitch three innings and earned the win, but, Pettitte says, “that was probably the dumbest thing that I ever could have done in my career because my elbow, it hurt probably every pitch of my career after that.”
He strained a ligament. The Yankees’ team doctor recommended he have season-ending Tommy John surgery, but Pettitte refused.
“I just was going to pitch until I completely tore it,” he said.
“I did whatever I could to get through and pitch with my elbow hurting me for however many years it was until I signed with the Houston Astros (in 2004) and eventually popped my flexor tendon on a check swing hitting where I had to have surgery.”
As Pettitte’s former teammates will attest, that sort of determination was indicative of the three-time All-Star’s competitiveness.
“Andy was an unbelievable competitor,” said Hayes, who caught the final out in foul territory to seal the World Series in Game 6. “I don’t know if he ever had the best stuff, but he was going to compete every day and give you a professional effort.”
Pettitte said he can’t believe it’s been 20 years since that Yankees team stormed back to win the franchise’s first world title in 18 years and kick-start a dynasty that would capture four championships in five years.
“Some days you scratch your head at how it all went by so fast and how your career is over now and how slow you wish it would have went,” he said.
“You dream of that moment (winning a World Series). When you go to spring training, that’s what you set out after with the group of guys that we had. And there are so many things that happen during the course of a year. It’s just great to be able to fulfill that and to win it. It’s a great feeling.”
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
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