Andy must lead in Sox Showdown

If Andy Pettitte wins Friday's start, it will be his 20th career win against the Red Sox. He is 19-10 with a 3.82 ERA in 40 games (38 starts) against Boston.

It is that Pettitte, the one who has shown up so many times before against the Red Sox, whom the Yankees need to show up at Fenway.

If the Yankees are going to make the playoffs, it is going to be because they continue to pitch well. And it starts Friday with Pettitte.

But while the overall starting pitching has been very good, Pettitte has been inconsistent. Pettitte rocketed out of the gates, going 3-0 with a 2.01 ERA in his first three starts. Since then, in 13 starts, Pettitte is 4-6 with a 5.09 ERA.

Joe Girardi still chose him to lead the way in this showdown series in Boston this weekend. It shows the manager's faith, because this might be the Yankees' last stand.

If the Yankees can sweep or take two of three games, they will give the second half some momentum. The division title is the prize to success in the playoffs, and the Yankees are six games back of the Red Sox. They are three games out in the wild-card chase, but if they were to claim one of those spots, sudden death would await them immediately after the season.

When trying to figure out the road map for the Yankees to leap over the three teams in front of them in the AL East standings, starting pitching tops the list. The lineup -- even if Derek Jeter returns Friday, Alex Rodriguez comes back Monday and Curtis Granderson joins by early next month -- is still not the intimidating 1-through-9 the Yankees usually trot out. So it comes back to the men on the mound.

The bullpen, led from the back by Mariano Rivera and David Robertson, has been lights-out.

But while the starters have been good overall, there is room for individual improvement. CC Sabathia (9-8, 4.07 ERA) must throw like an ace again. Phil Hughes (4-9, 4.57) could be more consistent. Pettitte has to be better than he has been the past two months.

Pettitte beat the Red Sox in the opening series of the season. He turned back the clock in early April in the Bronx, combining with Mariano Rivera for a 4-2 Yankees win. Pettitte allowed just one run in eight innings, and Rivera returned for the first time since his knee surgery, marking one of the highlights of the season thus far.

If there are going to be more memorable moments, it starts Friday night, when Pettitte will face some tough matchups. David Ortiz has a .955 OPS in 61 at-bats versus Pettitte. Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonny Gomes are hitting .320 or better versus Pettitte. But Pettitte has controlled Dustin Pedroia, limiting him to a .214 average in 42 at-bats.

Pettitte really seems to have relished his return, but if things continue to go south, you wonder if we are seeing the final days of his legendary career. He surely is not thinking about the end. He is thinking about starting a second-half comeback for himself and his team.