On the first official day of his Houston career in 2004, Andy Pettitte, who perhaps will always be associated with that pinstriped team from the Bronx, got lost on the way to the Astros' spring training complex in Kissimmee, Fla. Pettitte, who had been a New York Yankee his entire career, was anxious about starting over somewhere else. But he spent most of that season on the disabled list with an injured elbow, which did nothing to help him leave behind his Yankees memories.

Perhaps Pettitte did not truly become an Astro until the final month of this season, when he tried finding some television coverage about the National League wild-card race. Instead, he usually found reports about the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

"We were kind of making a joke that there was a National League race going on, too," Pettitte said. "Everywhere you looked, there was nothing but talk about the Yankees and the Red Sox. I guess I'm getting a little taste of it with the Astros of why everyone hates the Yankees so much. They're constantly on the news and getting coverage."

It seems that Pettitte, despite being a former Yankee, has never gotten the media coverage he deserves. The left-hander -- who will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday at Turner Field -- may be the best pitcher in baseball right now. Pettitte is 14-2 with a 1.56 ERA since June 20, the most wins and the best ERA over that time in the majors. On a staff that includes Roger Clemens, Pettitte may be the most important pitcher in this series.

"My sentimental choice for team MVP is Andy Pettitte," Houston General Manager Tim Purpura said. "Without Andy Pettitte, we aren't here."

Last season was torturous for Pettitte, who injured his left elbow while batting in his first start. The injury sapped Pettitte of most of his velocity, and he was forced to reinvent his mechanics to simply stay in the rotation.

"I found my change-up again last year," Pettitte said. "I didn't have it for probably my last six or seven years in New York. I didn't have a good change-up that I was using the course of a game. It was nice to be able to find that pitch last year while being hurt."

On Aug. 18, 2004, Pettitte decided he could no longer pitch with the pain in his elbow and opted to have season-ending surgery. The Astros surged to the playoffs as Pettitte simply sat in the dugout and watched.

"I really did nothing except be kind of a cheerleader," Pettitte said. "Obviously, I'd talk to some of the guys that had never been there, and just tried to be there for anybody that had any questions or wanted to talk."

The spring began with Pettitte determined to come back, but often his elbow did not respond. He often described his elbow as "cranky," yet there really wasn't much anybody could do for him.

"Nothing was wrong with the elbow, but it just didn't feel right," Purpura said. "There were times when it just didn't feel right."

But by midseason, it was apparent that Pettitte was perhaps better than he had ever been. He finished second in the majors in ERA (2.39), trailing only Clemens, and was undefeated in September. His 27 quality starts were tied for most in the majors.

Pettitte's first playoff start for the Astros will be personally significant, as it will further distance him from his New York days. It is only pure coincidence, albeit a poetic one, that it will be his first postseason outing in Atlanta since Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, when as a second-year pro he delivered what Yankees Manager Joe Torre has dubbed the most important start of the current New York dynasty. Pettitte threw 81/3 scoreless innings against the Braves, and two days later the Yankees won their first World Series title since 1978.

"That one will stay real close to me," Pettitte said. "I remember that one like it was yesterday just because of being so young. It was a special moment in my career."

But he's clearly an Astro now.

"You know what's interesting?" Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "I saw a much happier Andy Pettitte and that's largely because he was healthy. Last year he was riddled with injuries. We only saw glimpses of him."

Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte is 14-2 with a 1.56 ERA since June 20, the most wins and the best ERA over that time in the majors.