The Twins eventually lost Game 3 of the ALDS last year, but as righthander Carl Pavano set down Yankee after Yankee early in the game—through six shutout innings he faced just 20 batters, two more than the minimum, before allowing two runs in the seventh—the joke in the Metrodome press box was, "Hey, this Pavano guy's pretty good. Maybe the Yankees should sign him."
Of course, New York had tried that, signing Pavano to a four-year, $39.95 million free-agent deal in December 2004. Pavano made fewer than a season's worth of starts (26) for the Yankees before leaving as a free agent after the '08 season, the result of a cascade of injuries that included shoulder tendinitis, bruised buttocks, broken ribs and a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. To fans and teammates alike—and to manager Joe Torre, who devoted part of his 2009 memoir The Yankee Years, written with SI's Tom Verducci, to tales of Pavano's surliness and reluctance to pitch ("He was the pitching version of why New York State enacted a lemon law to protect used car buyers")—his name wasn't just a regular entry on the disabled list. It was a punch line.
Last season, though, a healthy Pavano went 14--12 with a 5.10 ERA in the quieter environs of Cleveland and, after an August trade, the Twin Cities, and this year, after signing a one-year, $7 million contract with the Twins in January, he has performed like the pitcher the Yankees thought they were getting all those years ago. Through Sunday, Pavano, now 34 and in his 12th major league season, was 15--8 with a 3.52 ERA. He was tied for second in the American League in wins and complete games (five), and his 174 innings pitched ranked fourth. He has relied increasingly on his sinker—nearly a third of his pitches this season have been sinking two-seam fastballs—to become one of the game's more economical pitchers. Of the 52 hurlers who had thrown more pitches than Pavano, just nine had gotten more outs.
Pavano gained a reputation among New York teammates for being grouchy and unmotivated, so perhaps the only thing more unlikely than his becoming a workhorse is his status as a leader on the Minnesota staff. The Twins, who at week's end led the AL Central by five games, view him as both. "He's the key to our rotation," pitching coach Rick Anderson says. "We just love the guy." They love him because he eats innings—even last Thursday, when he made it through the sixth despite allowing 15 hits (no pitcher has yielded more in a single game since 1998) in an 11--0 loss to the second-place White Sox. And they love him because of his influence on their younger starters. "[Earlier this month] he threw a game against Oakland," recalls Anderson, "and two days later we went over the game plan with [26-year-old] Kevin Slowey. He said, 'I already watched the whole thing with Carl.'" In his seven innings against the A's on Aug. 15, Slowey allowed no hits.
Pavano is equally beloved by the Twins' fans, not just for his pitching but for his Super Mario mustache, which he grew in May on a lark. "It doesn't grow in right, it's crooked, it's thin, it's gnarly," Pavano says. Still, at new Target Field, Anderson says, "You've got girls and babies and guys and grandmas wearing fake mustaches."
How much would the Yankees have to offer him to return to New York, the scene of his darkest days? "Funny question," says Pavano, a free agent after this season. "Never even thought about that. I was obviously very unsuccessful while I was there, in terms of my job." Then he contemplates the idea for a minute. "Never say never," he concludes. This year, Pavano is full of surprises.