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MARINERS CAN'T CUT IT AGAINST PETTITTE'S PERFECT PITCH

You place the middle finger along the long, wide seam. Apply pressure. Now, throw the fastball -- no snapping of the wrist, no change in arm angle or follow-through. Just squeeze the seam and, if you're Andy Pettitte, let your finger do the talking to a sorry, unsuspecting right-handed hitter.

Welcome to the cut-fastball, an easy pitch to learn, but impossible to hit. That's what the Mariners learned in a 4-2 loss to the Yankees in Game One of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday. Batter after batter, inning after inning, Pettitte devoured them with that single, devastating pitch -- which clones a fastball for the first 55 feet before violently breaking down and in.

How good was Pettitte's cutter? Not even Ichiro Suzuki could touch it, unable to get the ball out of the infield in three at-bats. Joe Torre noted that Pettitte's ability to keep Suzuki off the bases "made going through the rest of their lineup a lot less stressful."

Still, the Mariners -- who won a record-setting 116 games this year -- had their moments, including the fifth inning, when Edgar Martinez led off with a single and Mike Cameron followed up with a double.

Pettitte did bend a little, allowing the M's a run -- but only one, and Lou Piniella admitted, "I thought we had a chance" until the rally fizzled and the Mariners were still trailing, 3-1.

And then came the dramatic seventh inning, when Pettitte, protecting that two-run lead, allowed Bret Boone a leadoff single to left field. Suddenly, the machinery of the Mariners' self-confidence revved a little higher. That's because Edgar Martinez, who batted .322 this year with runners on base, was standing at the plate, ready to wage another classic one-on-one with Pettitte.

Oh, he knew the cutter was coming, just as he did in his previous at-bat, just as every Mariner had seen that unmistakable down-and-away action all afternoon.

But Pettitte had known since his bullpen warm-ups that "I had a really good one, and I felt I could throw it for a strike any time I wanted."

So Pettitte delivered six pitches to Martinez -- all of them cutters.

Every single one whispering, I Dare You. The first four produced a standoff: the count was 2-2, and Pettitte, looking for a strikeout, overthrew the next cutter, bouncing it in the dirt.

With the count full -- and the crowd at Safeco Field sensing a possible Mariner uprising -- Tino Martinez called time and whispered a few short words of advice to Pettitte.

"He said, 'My last time up, it was really tough to see,' " Pettitte said, recounting the first baseman's message. The left-hander absorbed that knowledge, realizing the sunset and the background shadows at Safeco had indeed created a hitter's nightmare.

"That really relaxed me," Pettitte said. "It made me feel like I had an advantage at that moment."

Pettitte took a deep breath, and delivered one last cutter -- late-breaking, down and in, just the way it says in the instruction manual.

Edgar Martinez is one of the most disciplined hitters in the game, but he still couldn't resist chasing the pitch, waving over it for strike three.

Pettitte had just won a critical battle, which is probably why he had so little trouble smothering that seventh-inning rally altogether. He beat Cameron with -- what else? -- a cutter, this time getting a sharp grounder to Scott Brosius.

You could almost hear a collective groan in the stands, pencils everywhere automatically scribbling "5-4-3." Like a machine, from Brosius to Alfonso Soriano to Tino Martinez, the Yankee infield eliminated Boone and Cameron, and the Mariners were ready for the recycling bin.

Piniella accepted the loss graciously, if not philosophically. His days of red-line temper tantrums are long gone -- especially in the face of overwhelming pitching.

What else could Sweet Lou say about Pettitte other than to state the obvious. The manager ruefully admitted, "He can pitch . . . guys like Pettitte, you have to get to them early. Once they settle in and get a good rhythm, it becomes a little more of a difficult chore."

Piniella knows that, unlike Roger Clemens, who is all about fury and football-like intensity, Pettitte runs on self-confidence.

The left-hander succeeds only if he feels as though he will, which was precisely the topic of conversation between him and Paul O'Neill at dinner Tuesday night.

O'Neill said, "You could tell Andy was ready to go. I mean, he knows if he makes a good pitch, he's going to get hitters out. And if someone gets on, he knows he's going to get a double play."

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