NEW YORK -- The fraternity of players who shared in the Yankees' modern dynasty dwindles every year, and now the likes of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are outnumbered by teammates who have something to prove. But when the Yankees had to win Thursday night, in Game 2 of the Division Series, it was a member of the old guard who hoisted them.
Andy Pettitte, the owner of four championship rings, walked through the dugout before taking the mound against the Minnesota Twins and felt how much he was needed, stirring his emotion. This was a central element of the Yankees' past greatness: the players tried to focus on what they could do for teammates, rather than their own pressures.
Pettitte struck out 10, a career high in the postseason, and allowed only one run in seven innings as the Yankees beat Minnesota, 4-1; the best-of-five series is even at one game apiece, with Games 3 and 4 to be played in the Metrodome Saturday and Sunday. "It was a fun game, one of the funnest games I've pitched," Pettitte said afterward.
He will become eligible for free agency in a few weeks and sources within the Yankees' organization say there is a real chance he will sign elsewhere. When Pettitte was asked on Tuesday about the possibility Game 2 would be his last as a Yankee, that thought lingered in him the last couple of days. "That creeps into your head and you start to think about it," he acknowledged. "It's been such a great experience here. But like I said, I'm not going to let anything distract me this time of year."
Pettitte might have dwelled on his own concerns. He built his postseason reputation by matching John Smoltz's brilliance in Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, in a game the Yankees won, 1-0. But Pettitte had failed terribly in his last two postseason outings, getting knocked out in the third inning of Game 6 of the 2001 World Series -- missing a chance to close out Arizona -- and then lasted only three innings against Anaheim in the 2002 Division Series.
Pettitte threw with some anxiety at the outset of the game, firing a couple of fastballs high and walking leadoff batter Shannon Stewart.
But Pettitte began relying on his cut fastball, a pitch that moves inside to right-handed batters and moves away from lefties, and quickly Pettitte gained equilibrium, striking out Luis Rivas, whiffing Doug Mientkiewicz, getting Matt LeCroy to hit a ball back to the mound. He mixed in some inside fastballs with his cutter, working both sides of the plate; Pettitte never really gave the Twins the same look the whole night, said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire.
The Twins' Torii Hunter crushed a leadoff homer in the fifth to tie the score at 1-all, and as Pettitte's pitch count climbed toward 75, he began losing some of his early command. The Twins had runners at first and second and two out in the sixth, and Pettitte fell behind Corey Koskie three balls and no strikes.
But Pettitte began working his way back into the count, throwing a couple of fastballs for strikes. The count was full and Posada jogged out to consult with Pettitte. Koskie had looked awful hacking at Pettitte's cutter in his first two at-bats, reacting as if he really didn't see the ball, and Posada and Pettitte agreed to go with that pitch.
Koskie waved at the cutter, ending the inning. "I know I haven't been around here very long -- this is my second year here," Jason Giambi said. "But the game he pitched tonight couldn't have been a bigger one."
And Pettitte helped to bail out Giambi. He is the most prominent Yankee now without a championship, his postseason struggles becoming magnified, and he was booed thickly after whiffing in the fifth inning with two on and two out.
Giambi, the designated hitter, retreated to the clubhouse, where David Wells -- another member of the old guard -- approached him with a handful of magazines featuring clothing-free women, just trying to take the edge of Giambi. In the seventh inning, Giambi's two-run single capped a three-run rally. "I guess it works," Giambi said of the magazine treatment, "to help me relax."
Manager Joe Torre had a full complement of rested relievers from which to choose for the top of the eighth. He could have tried to get an out with Chris Hammond, or Gabe White, or perhaps Jose Contreras. But he wanted Mariano Rivera for the last six outs -- nobody else. Only Rivera. "When you take Andy Pettitte out with the kind of courage he showed tonight," said Torre, "it would've been tough to replace him with anybody but Rivera."
So the Yankees won a must-win game. Roger Clemens and Wells pitch Games 3 and 4, two other members of the Yankees' old guard that is making a stand.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.