Pettitte as dependable as they come

BOSTON -- Andy Pettitte was dressing in the grim bowels of Fenway Park, worried he was about to be fired. This was late on a July night in 1999, when George Steinbrenner was a more ominous hurdle than the great wall in left.

Pettitte was approached by a reporter and informed the verdict was in: Steinbrenner had decided against trading him to the Phillies, had decided to heed the pro-Pettitte pleas of Joe Torre and Brian Cashman.

The left-hander wouldn't be subjected to the most humiliating Fenway firing since The Boss summoned a white stretch limo for his manager, Bucky Dent, feeding him to the very Green Monster he had once put to sleep.

"Whatever they want to do," a weary Pettitte said that night. "But if they keep me around, I hope the owner wants me here, too."

Steinbrenner forever wondered if Pettitte was too soft for his Big Ten tastes. Yet more than a decade later, with The Boss' in-your-face roar reduced to a distant whisper, there was Pettitte still shutting down the Red Sox, still giving the Yankees a chance to get to Curtis Granderson's bat and Mo Rivera's arm in the 10th.

Granderson's baptism by fire in this rivalry came via the long ball off Jonathan Papelbon, and old man Rivera took care of the rest. But the Yankees' starter won this deciding game of this opening series, making a liar out of a box score that swore he left Fenway with an 0-0 mark.

Of greater early-April consequence, Pettitte reminded all witnesses that he stands among the toughest Yankees the Steinbrenners ever employed.

He went six innings in this 3-1 victory, and it mattered not that he allowed the one Boston run -- or one more than his $82.5 million counterpart, John Lackey, gave the Yanks in his six-inning Boston debut.

Closing hard on his 38th birthday, Pettitte is done painting masterpieces. He surrendered six hits and three walks against four strikeouts. When trying and failing to beat Jacoby Ellsbury to the bag in the first, Pettitte lost his glove and the ball and took the least graceful tumble at Fenway since Pedro Martinez sent Don Zimmer for a bumpy ride.

"I got a little whiplash or something in my neck," Pettitte said, "and it actually took me a couple of innings to kind of regroup."

He needed something for his headache, too, and Yankees assistant trainer Steve Donohue said he gave Pettitte some Tylenol. The temperature was in the mid-80s, Pettitte kept trying to cool himself with ammonia water, and the Fenway fans weren't doing his throbbing head any favors.

"I was in survival mode," he said. "I wasn't coming out of the game. I just figured out a way to get through it."

Pettitte was rubbing some dirt on it, and the old college football coach inside Steinbrenner would have been proud. The Boss would sometimes mistake Pettitte's kindly demeanor for weakness. Steinbrenner wanted his pitchers to walk with a John Wayne strut. He wanted to lift weights with them like he did with Rocket Clemens on a bygone recruiting trip.

Steinbrenner would have liked the high-and-tight heat fired at Kevin Youkilis, even though he would have winced when Pettitte's fastball crashed against the first baseman's helmet in the fifth.

"I wasn't trying to throw a strike; I was trying to get it high off the plate," Pettitte said. "He knows I wasn't trying to hit him."

Of course, Lackey drilled Derek Jeter, just to make sure.

His headache having disappeared in the third, right around the time David Ortiz lashed his RBI single, Pettitte settled in on muscle memory. He entered Wednesday night with a 7-3 career record at Fenway, an 18-9 record against Boston overall.

So with two on and two out in the fifth, and with the crowd engaged in a profane chant, Pettitte followed his beaning of Youkilis with a full-count breaking ball to Ortiz. The designated hitter took an amateur-hour cut, and Pettitte allowed himself a Joba-like pump of his fist.

"I love this place, I really do," Pettitte said. "I think it's a great ballpark for left-handed pitchers. It's just a good atmosphere, man, and you know that it's going to be a tough game every time you come here."

Pettitte's a tough man built for this tough game and tougher rivalry. His legs were wobbling when he threw his 94th and final pitch, but it was one good enough to whiff Mike Cameron.

"Tomorrow I'll be a little sore," Pettitte conceded.

He's thrown 3,181 regular-season and postseason innings in the colors of the Yankees and Astros, precisely why Cashman acquired the insurance policy known as Javier Vazquez.

Nobody knows when Pettitte's left arm will give out, when his 14-8 seasons will turn into an 8-14 goodbye. Done with his first 2010 start, Pettitte said he wasn't thinking about retirement, and that he couldn't recall receiving the good Steinbrenner news in Fenway 11 years back.

Of the proposed trade to the Phillies, Pettitte said, "I know for a fact it was real close. The thing I remember most about all that was me and my wife going home at night and just basically preparing her to leave.

"I really felt like it was going to happen. It was a tough time for us. I didn't want to be traded."

Pettitte went on to win 13 postseason games for the Yanks since the night Steinbrenner kept him, including his 4-0 record last year. In between, Pettitte left for the Astros, returned to the Bronx, and handled his human growth hormone confession -- and unwanted role in the Clemens case -- like a man.

As a Yankee in love with Fenway's hostile environment, the old Pettitte remains as tough as the young Pettitte. He took a hard spill Wednesday night, and a little Tylenol was all the lefty needed to get his mind right.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.