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Credit Pettitte for recovering from shaky start

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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PHILADELPHIA

If the Yankees finish off the Phillies for their first world championship in almost a decade, they'll remember the sea-change moment in Game 3, when Andy Pettitte was on the verge of collapse, as helpless and hopeless as the Yankees had seen him all season. His pitch-count soared to 52 in just two innings, without command of his curveball, no fastball to speak of, not a single weapon to counter the Phillies' growing rally. The scoreboard told of an October crisis — Phillies 3, Yankees 0 — and in case Pettitte needed any further reminder, all he had to do was listen to the crowd at Citizens Bank Park.
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The place was in a controlled state of madness — and not much control, at that. Tens of thousands of Phillies' fans sensed the Yankee empire was doomed. Pettitte himself later said, "they really had me on the ropes" as he'd just walked Jimmy Rollins with the bases loaded, forcing in the third run of the inning. Already, Pettitte had surrendered a solo homer to Jayson Werth. One out later, he allowed Pedro Feliz to blast a double off the scoreboard in right field. Then he walked Carlos Ruiz, and the meltdown seemed complete when the Yankee infield froze as Cole Hamels put down a perfect bunt. That loaded the bases for Rollins, who watched as Pettitte failed to come close to the strike zone. The 37-year-old lefthander took a deep breath, the kind that stretched the lining of his lungs, and told himself to remember his roots, remember his mechanics, remember all the October conquests of his past. None of those therapies worked, however. "I just couldn't put the ball where I wanted," he said. "I mean when you're out there all by yourself and you're struggling to throw a strike it can really be a grind. Once they scored that third run, I was thinking to myself, 'You can't give up another run. I have to go six or seven innings.'" Pettitte ultimately regrouped for two reasons: Alex Rodriguez blasted a two-run HR in the fourth inning that took the crowd out of the game, and Hamels allowed five runs in 1.1 innings after initially holding the Yankees scoreless through the first three. Now, with an 8-5 victory on the docket, the Yankees have put enormous pressure on Charlie Manuel, who's sticking with a risky decision to start Joe Blanton in Game 4 Sunday. Blanton has an 8.18 career ERA against the Yankees, the fourth-highest among active pitchers with at least four starts against them. Manuel says, "we've got three games left, we've got to get going, it's time for us to do it," but he knows he's facing long odds against CC Sabathia, even on three days' rest. If Blanton self-destructs the way Hamels did, the Phillies would be on the verge of elimination in front of their home crowd Monday night in Game 5 — an inglorious end to a postseason which started with promise and a generous helping of well-earned arrogance. You only had to hear Manuel talking about Pettitte on Friday to know the Philllies believed the Series was theirs. The manager, unedited as he always is, said, "Andy Pettitte, he's a lot like anybody else who ages — his stuff is kind of starting to dwindle down. "I've seen him pitch on TV a lot, and I've definitely seen him pitch against our Cleveland team (where Manuel used to manage). We used to have some pretty good success against him, and I think we are ready for him." The army of fans took Manuel's words to heart. Hundreds of them lined Broad Street as the Yankees' bus pulled into Citizens Bank Park. The American League champs are used to hostility — they go to Fenway three times a year, after all — but this was a particularly hard-edged greeting. The Bombers heard insults and epithets, all of them treated to the universal one-finger salute. They pretended not to notice or care, figuring that Pettitte, the most experienced and mature pitcher on the staff — not to mention the most unflappable — was best suited to deal with the haters. Trouble was, Pettitte was on the verge of reliving a nightmare from the 2001 World Series against Arizona. Yankee historians can tell you exactly what happened to Pettitte that night, how he gave up six runs and seven hits in two innings. The 15-2 loss was horrific, but as poorly as Pettitte pitched, he felt even worse when he subsequently learned he'd been tipping his pitches. The lefty promised never to let his team down in October, not like that, which is why he made a pact with himself after the Phillies' third run: find the cutter and the crisis will end. Pettitte knew his salvation would come from the left-handed hitters in the Phillies' lineup. Either through sheer will, or luck or magic, Pettitte found his touch on the outside corner and was able to neutralize Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez. Together, they were 1-for-10 with six strikeouts, as Manuel later conceded, "he closed out our lefties. That was the big thing." Manuel, of course, promised a better effort Sunday, even trailing two games to one. "We're going to come out and play harder," he said. "We're that kind of team." Still, this is the first time since 2007 the Phillies have trailed in a postseason series, so it's anyone's guess how they'll actually respond. Rollins, who'd predicted the Yankees would fall in five games, was forced to backpedal, saying it'll take six games to defend their title. If so, that would mean beating Pettitte in Game Six. He'll be working on three days' rest, as will Burnett and Sabathia. That may work to the Phillies' advantage, although there's no doubt they let a huge opportunity slip through their grasp in Game 3. No one knows that better than Pettitte. "I'm thankful I didn't give up any more runs than I did," he said, smiling but definitely not kidding. Bob Klapisch can be followed on Twitter.

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