Astros confident in Pettitte for Game 1
Veteran gets chance against Braves after missing 2004 playoffs
ATLANTA -- The way Astros manager Phil Garner sees it, the only guy who could make his postseason starting rotation any better than it already is would be the late Cy Young.
"It would be hard to get him in there now, I guess," Garner joked. "Nonetheless, I feel pretty good about it."
It's hard not to feel good when your Division Series rotation has Roger Clemens and his National League-best 1.87 ERA slotted second. For Game 1 against Tim Hudson and the Braves on Wednesday night, Garner is going with battle-tested left-hander Andy Pettitte.
Pettitte has the past and the present on his side. His 13 postseason wins rank second all-time to the Braves' John Smoltz, who was bumped back to start Game 2 against Clemens. And Pettitte is coming off his second NL Pitcher of the Month Award, having gone a perfect 4-0 in his six September starts.
"If I had to win one game, Andy Pettitte would be the guy I'd want on the hill," said Astros catcher Brad Ausmus. "I certainly feel very confident with him in Game 1."
It's a Division Series rematch of last year, when the Astros beat the Braves in a deciding fifth game and played to within a game of the franchise's first World Series.
They did it all without Pettitte, who was sidelined with an elbow injury and forced to stew on the bench while Houston used a patchwork rotation, headed by Clemens and 20-game winner Roy Oswalt along with phenom Brandon Backe.
"There's nothing worse than getting paid to do something and you don't feel like you're doing your job," Pettitte said. "That was where I was at last year."
He was a $5.5 million cheerleader, limited to 15 starts by elbow troubles that required season-ending surgery to repair a torn tendon. The injury ruined what was supposed to be a Houston homecoming for both Pettitte and Clemens.
"Immediately, it was a bad situation there in Houston," Pettitte said. "This year has definitely been a fresher breath of air for me."
It has been for the Astros, as well. Pettitte finished the year 17-9 with a career-best 2.39 ERA, second in the league to Clemens. He made at least 30 starts for the ninth time in his 11-year career and re-discovered his change-up for the first time in "six or seven years."
With the emergence of that pitch, opponents cannot sit on his cut fastball. Pettitte's 171 strikeouts were nine shy of his career high, and he held opponents to a .230 batting average, 37 points below his career mark. His 27 quality starts tied the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter for tops in the Majors.
Like the Astros, Pettitte is hitting the playoffs on the upswing. He won 14 games with a 1.56 ERA over his final 20 starts of the regular season, tops in the Majors on both counts.
In other words, the Astros got their money's worth.
"As far as having Andy Pettitte here this time around, it's awesome," said third baseman Morgan Ensberg. "Guys get on base and guys get in scoring position, and he just seems to take it to another level."
Throughout his career, that has been especially true in the postseason. Pettitte is 13-8 with a 4.05 ERA in 30 postseason starts and is known, as Ausmus put it, as one of the sport's great big-game pitchers.
"I've had some bad games, too," Pettitte said. "I don't know if those are the ones I always remember, or what."
Game 5 of the 1996 World Series was most definitely not a bad game. Then a Yankee, Pettitte had started Game 1 against the reigning world champion Braves, surrendered two home runs to a then-19-year-old Andruw Jones and did not make it out of the third inning.
All-time postseason wins leaders
The Yankees rallied from a two-games-to-none deficit to tie the series, and Pettitte came back to start Game 5, which would be the last game at Fulton County Stadium.
"That one will always stay real close to me," he said. "I remember that one like it was yesterday."
Pettitte worked 8 1/3 scoreless innings and outdueled Smoltz, 1-0, setting up New York for its first championship in 18 years.
Is there a difference between regular-season starts and October ones?
"You try to get your focus every start, whether it's regular season or postseason," Pettitte said. "I think that in the postseason, you get a little more focused. ... There's just something different about your intensity and focus. Hopefully, I get to that level."
The rest of Houston hopes so, too.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.