ANDY’S DANDY IN PINSTRIPES

ATLANTA — Andy Pettitte looks like a character out of “The Lords of Flatbush” — dark wavy hair, sunken eyes, thick lips, heavy stubble. He looks like a guy who would watch the Yankees, who would adore the Yankees, who would dream one day of playing for the Yankees, even though he grew up in Deer Park, Texas, a long way from the Bronx. Never mind that small contradiction. The Yankees drafted him, put him in their farm system, and he began to look more like a guy who’d take the D train every day.

Now Pettitte plays for the Yankees. And on Thursday night he pitched them to within two outs of a complete-game World Series shutout. Then he came into the dugout, put a towel over his head, and there, in the roar of the sellout crowd, he prayed for the right ending.

He prayed when Atlanta’s Javy Lopez came to the plate, with the tying run on third, and he exhaled when he heard the crowd moan, for he knew Lopez had made an out. That left one to go. Still the towel was on his head. He rubbed at the sweat that wouldn’t stop dripping down his forehead. He prayed some more.

Then, a crack of the bat. He heard the crowd scream with excitement, and he gave up, he tossed the towel and peeked between his teammates, who were on their feet watching the ball head for the seats.

“I could just see between a couple guys,” Pettitte would say, “and I could make out Paul O’Neill running for the ball. And then I couldn’t see him. I was blocked. So I just watched my teammates’ reaction.

“When they jumped up and down, I knew what had happened.”

O’Neill had grabbed it, on a dead run, a few feet from the wall. Final out. The Yankees had won. And Andy Pettitte, the new Lord of Flatbush, had just dropped a bomb on the Atlanta Braves.

Joy of October baseball

“This is the greatest moment I’ve had all year,” Pettitte said after his five-hit, 1-0 victory moved the Yankees within one win of the World Series crown. “I can’t believe it.”

He’s not the only one. Pettitte is only 24 — is it me, or are there more amazing kids in this Series than any in recent memory, what with Andruw Jones, Jermaine Dye, Derek Jeter — and now Pettitte, who couldn’t last three innings in the Series opener last Sunday, yet sealed the Braves on Thursday like a Ziploc bag. That’s right. No runs. Goose egg. A shutout. These same Braves who have scored, 15, 14, and 12 runs in postseason games this year. Pettitte twisted them like pretzels. He confounded them into double plays. He kept it low, he kept it away, he kept it in his catcher’s mitt.

And he kept the game in check.

And now the Yankees — who were the team that didn’t have enough starting pitching, remember? — have won three in a row in this World Series and are heading back to their home stadium with a well-rested relief staff, thanks to Pettitte.

And thanks to the little things, the delectables of October baseball upon which so many championships turn.

Like the fourth inning, where New York’s Charlie Hayes lofted an easy fly ball to right-centerfield, but Atlanta’s Dye, just a rookie, crossed in front of Marquis Grissom, who lost sight of the ball, just for a moment, and dropped it. Cecil Fielder came up two batters later and poked a shot down the leftfield line — perfect under the conditions — and Hayes raced in and the Yankees had the lead.

Little pellet.

Or was it the sixth inning, when Pettitte allowed two men to reach base, had nobody out, and was looking at trouble. But he charged in on a Mark Lemke bunt, and spun to third base and fired. In time. One out. And Pettitte got the next batter, Chipper Jones, to chop a ball back to the mound, and once again the game was in Pettitte’s hands, and once again he made the right play, a sharp throw to second to start a double play that ended the inning, and may well have ended the Atlanta Braves.

Let’s face it. The Braves, once huge favorites, are now coming apart like a rock band that keeps blowing its amplifiers. They lost Game 3. They blew Game 4. And they couldn’t get enough wind to lift off the ground in Game 5.

And aren’t we surprised?

Lesson: Don’t call the race early

There is a very good lesson in all of this. When the Braves won the first two games of this Series, by a combined score of 16-1, we pundits were in a hurry to bury New York. Here in Atlanta, they wrote stories saying “Why bother even playing the rest?” One columnist said, “Forget the 1996 Yankees. Bring on the 1927 Yankees.”

This is nothing new. Year after year, in everything from sports to politics, we seem in a frenzy to call the race early. We want to tell you the president before the polls close. We want to predict the Super Bowl before they kick it off. It is part of the frenzy to call attention to ourselves by calling something early — even though, inevitably, we are wrong as often as we are right.

Where’s the shame in waiting until it’s over to say it’s over?

There is none. So let us learn from that mistake. “Anything can still happen,” said a grim Bobby Cox, the Atlanta manager, and on that, at least, he is correct. The home team has lost every game in this crazy series, so how could you possibly declare anything true today?

Except maybe this: Andy Pettitte, on Thursday night, had one of those baseball moments that makes young kids from Deer Park to Flatbush want to pick up the ball and throw it against a backstop. He looked every bit a New York Yankee out there. Even the towel fit him perfectly.

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