By George, a kinder, gentler Boss


BOSTON -- Andy Pettitte stands as proof that New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner remains as impatient as ever, but now defers to his baseball people instead of acting on each and every impulse.

Steinbrenner backed off trading Pettitte at the July 31 deadline only at the urging of manager Joe Torre and general manager Brian Cashman, who pointed to the left-hander's track record as a big-game performer.

All were vindicated when Pettitte unfurled his latest postseason gem last night, pitching 7 1/3 innings to defeat the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, 9-2.

Pettitte is still only 27, and he's now 6-4 in 13 postseason starts, with an October resume that includes the World Series clincher over San Diego last year and the ALCS clincher over the Orioles in 1996.

So, why is he the subject of trade rumors every season? Torre said one reason is that Pettitte is a finesse pitcher who seems more expendable than a hard thrower. But Steinbrenner's eternal restlessness can not be discounted.

The bottom line, however, is that the Yankees kept Pettitte, who is now 2-0 with a 1.84 ERA in the postseason. And their refusal to trade such an important part of their recent October success reflects Steinbrenner's growth as an owner.

If Steinbrenner can learn from his mistakes, why can't Peter Angelos?

Hands-off, the Boss isn't. In fact, it would be a stretch to say that he now trusts his baseball people. He trusts them, but always with an implied threat. He trusts them, so long as they are right.

It's a kinder, gentler Steinbrenner, but not too kind, and not too gentle. Still, with the Yankees now one victory away from their third World Series appearance in four years, who can argue with his management style?

Last night was a game the Red Sox had to win -- trailing three games to one, they now need to beat the Yankees three straight, including twice at Yankee Stadium.

But in its own way, the game was equally important to the Yankees, who began the night needing to win two of the next three, or be left with the possibility of facing Pedro Martinez again in Game 7.

Don't let the score deceive you -- the Yankees entered the inning leading only 3-2. Their six-run ninth was largely the product of two Boston errors and a grand slam off Rod Beck by pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee.

The Fenway Faithful erupted at two questionable umpiring decisions, showering the field with debris. Torre pulled his team from the field, called the fan reaction "inexcusable" and "disgraceful" and criticized Red Sox security. And as usual, the fan anger was misplaced.

The Red Sox disintegrated even before closer Mariano Rivera recorded the final five outs to extend his streak of consecutive scoreless innings to 38. Pettitte never let them breathe, shutting down a team that had scored 45 runs at Fenway in its three previous postseason games.

"That's pretty much the way he pitched every time he has had to pitch a big game," Torre said. "He was something. This ballpark is tough to pitch in. He got in jams, he got out of jams. He's such a good guy to go along with everything else he's been through. It was an emotional game for us."

Pettitte described it in the same terms.

"It was a very emotional game," he said. "I felt I was in trouble every inning. Their fans were really into it. It was kind of tough to control your emotions. But overall, I felt great. I felt I was getting a lot of ground balls. Most of their hits came on ground balls through the infield."

The Yankees needed such a performance from Pettitte, because for the most part, they still aren't hitting. They entered the game batting only .221 in the postseason. Before last night, they had scored only 14 runs in five games since their 8-0 victory over Texas in Game 1 of the Division Series.

They got a boost last night from designated hitter Darryl Strawberry, who hit a towering homer off the right-field foul pole with one out in the second. They also got significant help from the Red Sox, whose four errors increased their series total to eight, tying an LCS record.

The Red Sox do so many things well, but defense remains their glaring weakness. They had the third-highest error total in the AL this season. And they've now committed 11 errors in nine postseason games.

Bret Saberhagen, his right shoulder held together by staples, rubber bands and other assorted hardware-store items, pitched six terrific innings. But his failure to handle a routine throw from first baseman Mike Stanley in the fourth produced New York's go-ahead run.

The Yankees, by contrast, worked a crisp 8-6-2 relay after a double off the wall by John Valentin in the third, with strong throws by Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter nailing Jose Offerman at the plate.

That was Boston's last threat.

Pettitte allowed only three singles after the double by Valentin, the last of which came on a play in which Knoblauch bobbled a grounder and made one of his trademark poor throws to first.

Steinbrenner was right to trust his baseball people. His baseball people were right to trust Pettitte. As usual in the postseason, Andy Pettitte made everyone look good.

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