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10/11/05 8:05 PM ET

Pettitte prepared for Game 1 start

Veteran southpaw excited to return to LCS competition

ST. LOUIS -- Andy Pettitte is right back where he wants to be -- pitching in the National League Championship Series for the Houston Astros on Wednesday night against the NL champion Cardinals in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series at Busch Stadium.

It's a repeat of last year's matchup, which the Cardinals won in seven games, with one major difference: Pettitte was recovering from left elbow surgery last season and wasn't available to start in the postseason.

"Well, I mean, it's definitely special," said Pettitte, the left-hander who won four World Series titles in five years pitching for the Yankees from 1995 to 2003. "When I signed with the Astros, this is what I hoped: that I would be able to help the organization get past that first round of the playoffs. Like I said a million times before, last year they did it without me, and hopefully this year I can help us get past this round now."

Pettitte left the Yankees after losing Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, having watched the Marlins celebrate their series victory on the hallowed Yankee Stadium turf. The story has been told a million times. The Yankees didn't heartily pursue Pettitte after he filed for free agency and he instead signed with his hometown Astros.

Clemens, having retired from the Yankees, followed Pettitte and signed with Houston, the pair hoping to bring that World Series magic along with them. The plan went awry when Pettitte blew out his elbow and had flexor tendon surgery on Aug. 13.

When the Astros vanquished the Braves in last October's NL Division Series, Pettitte was ambivalent.

"He tried to act like he was happy for us and smiled, but you could tell it was eating him up inside," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said. "He came here with Roger hoping for the promise of the postseason and the World Series. But after he had that surgery, his season ended."

This year, Pettitte is firing on all cylinders, finishing 17-9 with a 2.39 ERA. He was the winning pitcher against the Braves in Game 1 of the NLCS. It was the 14th postseason win of his career. If he can beat the Cardinals on Wednesday night, he'll tie Atlanta's John Smoltz for the most postseason wins ever, a record Pettitte has played nip and tuck with since he won three times for the Yankees during the 2003 postseason.

He's faced all kinds of pressure pitching in the postseason for the premier team in the city that does not sleep. In 2003, for instance, Pettitte won Game 2 in each of the three rounds after the Yankees dropped the first game. Now the only pressure is helping the Astros get into their first World Series since the franchise was founded in 1962.

"Really, the only pressure I've ever really felt has just come from myself," Pettitte said. "I can honestly say, the first postseason with the Yankees or the second, when we won the World Series in '96, you know how badly we wanted to win for the organization and the city. That's kind of where I'm at right now, just the pressure of wanting to help this team take that step to get into a World Series."

And he wasn't going to let a little bug stop him.

Pettitte, three of his four kids and his wife all came down with a 24-hour virus on Sunday, the day the Astros played their epic 18-inning game to oust the Braves again in Game 4 of the NLDS at Minute Maid Park.

Pettitte left the ballpark and tried to get some sleep. He was earmarked to start Game 5 in Atlanta on Monday had the Braves tied the series. As the day wore on and innings melted into more innings, Pettitte began to feel better. He went into his garage, threw a few balls and jumped on the exercise bike.

"Just to get heated up," he said on Tuesday, looking no worse for the wear.

When Clemens came into the game to pinch-hit in the bottom of the 15th inning, Pettitte drove back to the ballpark, knowing that manager Phil Garner had used up all his available pitchers.

"I called in and told them I could pitch if they needed me," Pettitte said. "So I ended up going back up there in the 16th inning and just started to get on my uniform to give them an option."

Clemens pitched the last three innings for the victory and Chris Burke homered in the 18th to give the Astros the win.

Now they are four steps away again from making it to the Promised Land. Like last year against the Cardinals. But with one big difference: Pettitte is healthy. Free from arm problems and 24-hour bugs.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.