Long before the first game of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night, Andy Pettitte was jogging briskly around the bases during batting practice, a normal loosening-up ritual among Astros pitchers. Another Houston pitcher, Roy Oswalt, ripped a line drive right at Pettitte, about a dozen feet from third base. Not the hardest line drive you ever saw, not a Barry Bonds liner, but a bullet.

Pettitte saw the ball streaking toward him, timed his jump as he ran to try to avoid it and did a sort of prancing pirouette, kicking both knees high, one after the other. But he mistimed his leap by a fraction of a second. His trailing leg came down too soon and the ball struck him directly behind his right knee. The Astros' Game 1 starter had just been drilled by the Astros' Game 2 starter. One of the best postseason pitchers in history had been lamed for the night by a back-to-back 20-game winner on his own team who, for irony's sake, is a lousy hitter to boot.

"It's unbelievable, a freak accident," said Pettitte, who took the mound despite a knee so swollen and painful that doctors had to numb the area. "I saw the ball the whole way. I thought I could avoid it, but it kept breaking into the inside of my knee."

Pettitte had his worst start in the last four months, allowing five earned runs, including a 445-foot home run, in six innings of a 5-3 loss to St. Louis.

"I was terrible," he said. "I didn't make any quality pitches at all. Everything I threw was up" in the strike zone.

Any logical person would conclude that if you've had a 1.55 ERA in your last 20 starts since June 14, but, suddenly, after getting hit in the knee by a line drive, you get shelled because the pain in your plant leg won't allow you get on top of the ball, then the accident and the defeat are almost certainly connected.

Baseball players, of course, are not allowed to say this. It's called making excuses. You'd never live it down. Did the itty-bitty line drive make you lose the big, bad playoff game, you big baby?

"That wasn't the reason I was so bad," Pettitte said.

His manager and teammates, however, have their doubts. "You see guys get hit by balls in batting practice once in a while," Craig Biggio said. "But not the starting pitcher. Incredible."

"I think it was a factor for Andy. It started to swell up," Astros Manager Phil Garner said at his postgame news conference. Later, in his office, he simply used the same word that jumped to Pettitte's mind: "Unbelievable."

Pettitte may have contributed to his own problem by acting like a tough guy and not getting immediate treatment. As soon as he was hit, Oswalt did a double take and stared at his teammate to see if he was hurt. Pettitte acted as if nothing had happened, never rubbed his knee or limped, but simply came back to the batting cage, pick up a bat and continued to take practice bunts.

Among reporters, those of us who saw it assumed Pettitte had been hit in some innocuous spot, probably his rear end, and hadn't been affected. In fact, Pettitte was in so much pain that he was reduced to thinking the Astros' medical staff would have to perform some MASH. procedure so that "somehow, some way we'd get me out there to pitch."

A couple of days ago, Pettitte had nausea and other symptoms that caused him to be quarantined from the team. "I'm perfectly fine as far as that. That's gone," Pettitte said. As for the knee? "Sore. I threw six innings on it. It's sore."

Will you miss your next start?

"No chance."

Postseason baseball just never stops providing ludicrously improbable story lines. On Sunday, Roger Clemens won an 18-inning game with a relief appearance that was a roughly approximate reprise of Walter Johnson's extra-inning, game-winning relief job in Game 7 of the '24 World Series. Just as Clemens was trying to atone for losing his previous start, the Big Train was also working on short rest because he'd been hit hard and lost his previous Series start.

Then, on Wednesday night in Chicago, Angels catcher Josh Paul, one of the game's brighter players, mistakenly rolled the ball back to the pitcher's mound after he thought A.J. Pierzynski had struck out to end the bottom of the ninth inning of a 1-1 game. On to the 10th inning, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Plate umpire Doug Eddings ruled that the third strike pitch had touched the dirt -- by a molecule, perhaps -- so Paul had to tag the runner or throw him out at first to complete the strikeout. Pierzynski saw the ump signal that the play was still alive and ran. No Angel could get to the ball in time to throw him out at first. Pinch runner Pablo Ozuna immediately stole second base as the rattled Paul bobbled a pitch and never even threw to second. Ozuna then scored on a Joe Crede drive into the left field corner on which he might, or might not, have scored if he'd still been on first base.

Like almost everything that happens in baseball, no matter how far-fetched, has precedent. In 1982 in a midseason game against Baltimore, all-star catcher Ted Simmons of the Brewers rolled the ball back to the mound, thinking an inning was over. An Oriole raced home from third base as Simmons jogged toward the dugout. The Orioles won that day in extra innings instead of losing in regulation. Entering the last day of the season, the Brewers and Orioles were tied for first place. Before the teams played at Memorial Stadium, Simmons was asked if he'd thought about the ball he'd rolled back to the mound months before. "I haven't thought about anything else," he said.

Luckily for him, the Brewers won and his blunder became a footnote, rather than a modern-day Merkle's Boner.

No one knows what the final score of this NLCS opener would have been if Pettitte hadn't been hit. Maybe it would have been 5-3 Cardinals anyway. But maybe it would have been 3-2 Houston. Or some other score. Like it or not, like Paul's gaffe in Chicago, Oswalt's Pettitte-seeking missile will provide the spooky music that will continue to play behind this series.

"We played the Cardinals 17 times in the regular season and every game was a save situation," one decided by three runs or less, Biggio said. "Now, it's 18 in a row. Every game in this series is probably going to be like this."

If that's the case, a word to the wise for Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens, the Astros' three pitching aces. Either stop running the bases during batting practice before you all kill each other. Or, at least, wear full body armor.