Andy Pettitte the key to Yankees' season

BOSTON -- The New York Yankees' pursuit of the American League East championship officially came to an end at 4:46 p.m. on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 2010. But in reality, this result was probably preordained 10 weeks earlier, when Andy Pettitte left the Yankee Stadium mound and didn't return for two months.

In hindsight, it turns out he may have taken the Yankees' hopes of winning the division with him. And now, their best hope of rebounding to make a serious run in the playoffs seems to hinge on how well he can return.

When they begin their playoff run as a wild-card team on Wednesday against the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins, their ace, CC Sabathia, will get the baseball. He has been their ace, their horse and their anchor all season long. For Thursday's Game 2, they will probably turn to Pettitte, who was even better than Sabathia in the first half of the season, but a missing, and much-missed, piece of their puzzle ever since.

On July 18, the day Pettitte suffered the groin strain that sidelined him until Sept. 19, the Yankees had the best record in baseball -- 58-33 -- and held a three-game lead in the AL East over the Tampa Bay Rays. Their starting rotation was, if not the best in the game, certainly among its top three.

When Game No. 162 finally went into the books late Sunday afternoon -- another lifeless defeat, this one 8-4 to a Boston Red Sox team with nothing to play for but next year -- they had fallen to the No. 4 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Wednesday, their record since Pettitte's injury a mediocre 37-33. And the loss of Pettitte seems to have coincided with a decline in performance of the rest of the starting pitchers not named Sabathia. After July 18, A.J. Burnett's record was 3-7, his ERA up from 4.77 to 5.26; Phil Hughes went 6-7; Javier Vazquez went 3-3, and lost his fastball, his job and probably a spot on the postseason roster. It also began the procession of stopgap starters that did not end until the regular season did, with Dustin Moseley's emergency start in the final game of the year.

Now, heading into the postseason, the biggest question mark of all is if this $210 million offensive juggernaut has enough pitching to get it through even the first round of the playoffs.

"We did miss Andy Pettitte, no doubt about it,'' manager Joe Girardi said in the cramped visiting manager's office, where he tried his best to put a positive spin on a final month of the season that was almost relentlessly negative. "We lost him for a little longer than we thought he would. But he's healthy now and that's the bottom line.''

Pettitte may be healthy, or he may not be. He complained of back stiffness after his abbreviated Sept. 24 start, in which the Red Sox chased him in the fourth inning with 10 hits and seven earned runs. And he didn't make it out of the fifth inning in Saturday afternoon's 6-5 Yankees win. But the bigger question is, can he attain or even come close to the form he had displayed prior to the All-Star break, when he had a staff-leading 11 wins and a 2.28 ERA?

If he can, then the Yankees head into the playoffs with two solid, proven playoff performers -- Sabathia and Pettitte -- pitching four out of the five potential games coming up against the Twins. If not, then it's CC and pray for four days of rain.

Because ever since Pettitte went down, the Yankees' pitching staff has been a patchwork quilt of the unreliable, the untested and the unknown. Sunday, the Yankees had to rely on a starter, Moseley, who qualified on two of those counts: untested and unknown. And he was sleep-deprived as well, not knowing until about 2 a.m. Sunday -- shortly after the conclusion of the Yankees' 7-6, 10-inning loss in Saturday's twinbill nightcap -- that in less than 12 hours he would be starting what had suddenly become the most important game of the Yankees' regular season.

Moseley pitched creditably -- actually, given the circumstances, almost unbelievably well. He allowed a two-run homer in the first inning to J.D. Drew and another to Jed Lowrie in the fifth, but otherwise kept the Red Sox in check. Meanwhile, the high-powered and higher-priced Yankees lineup could do next to nothing against John Lackey, and despite some late threats, limped off the field at Fenway Park and into the playoffs carrying a burdensome 12-15 September record on their backs. The Yankees lost 17 of their final 30 games.

Only their fabulous first half allowed them to maintain the fiction that they were in a pennant race right up until the last day of the season. That, along with the late collapse of the Rays, which practically mirrored their own, keeps alive the illusion that the defending world champions are heading into October baseball prepared to repeat, not surrender.

"Obviously you'd love to win your division, have home-field advantage and the best record in the AL,'' said Girardi, who had previously identified those three as this weekend's main objectives. "It didn't happen, but we're in the playoffs and that's the bottom line.''

But they backed in, and they know it. Given every opportunity to sweep this weekend -- in all three games, the Boston lineup was liberally peppered with recent members of the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox -- and afforded every bit of encouragement the stumbling Rays could send them from Kansas City, the Yankees responded by playing some of their worst baseball of the season when they needed to play their best.

Now they'll try to shrug it off as if winning the division and reaping the added benefit of playing the extra game at home every series was never really important to them -- as if just hanging on to make it into the final four was reward enough.

"I think if we had gone 10-0 in our final 10 games, besides feeling good about ourselves it wouldn't really mean much,'' said Alex Rodriguez. "Starting Wednesday, it's [a] blank canvas and we all start zero-zero. I think there won't be any carry-over. I think our mindset is fine.''

"It hasn't been our best baseball, but you throw that all away,'' Girardi said. "There's nothing you can do about the first 162 games. They're gone.''

Funny, but no one in the Yankees' clubhouse was looking to make excuses for the first 162 games when it seemed certain they would win at least 100 of them. Nor did they speak this way as recently as Friday, when Girardi assured one and all that this weekend was all about winning the division or bust.

Now that it's bust, they tried to make you believe the division wasn't that important, anyway -- the same way they tried back in July to minimize the Pettitte injury and what it would mean for the rest of their season.

Two and a half months later, we have our answer. Pettitte went down, and the Yankees went down with him. Now they need him to lift them back up again -- but nobody, least of all Pettitte, can be sure he is now capable of doing it. The Yankees have no choice but to depend upon him. And even though the notoriously secretive Girardi refuses to announce any starting pitchers beyond Sabathia in Game 1, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Pettitte pitching Game 2, especially since the Game 2 starter would also pitch a decisive Game 5 on full rest.

"They haven't told me anything yet,'' Pettitte said. "But whenever they ask me to, I'll be ready to pitch.''

But will he be ready to pitch the way he was pitching back in July?

"I've scuffled with my command, no question about it,'' he said. "I thought I was pretty solid my first start back [six innings, three hits, one run in a no-decision versus the Orioles on Sept. 19], and it's just a matter of getting my rhythm going again. I know I struggled in these past two games and that's not how you want to finish up, but I'm ready to get going. We tried to win this thing and we weren't able to get it done. We haven't played great this past month but we're going to the postseason and I'm excited about it. The bottom line is, we're the world champions until somebody beats us.''

And they were looking like world champions as recently as July 18, the day Andy Pettitte went down with an injury from which his team has yet to recover.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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