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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS / AMERICAN LEAGUE

Martinez Eager to Prove Worth in Playoffs

Baseball: After signing huge contract in off-season, Boston's ace right-hander can't wait to finally get a taste of postseason play.

September 29, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — Pedro Martinez, the little pitcher with the giant contract and gargantuan reputation, has waited a long time for this short series.

Everybody in the ballpark knows he has the ability to make it his series. Everybody knows he almost has to, if Boston is going to survive and advance.

Everybody will be watching.

A year since he escaped his Montreal purgatory and many seasons since he was a Dodger afterthought, Martinez is the featured attraction--and most powerful presence--in the American League division series between his playoff-cursed Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians. Boston is the wild-card entry, having finished 22 games behind the Yankees in the East but having won three more games than the Central Division-winning Indians.

The series starts today at Jacobs Field with Martinez on the mound, eager to crank out his usual array of 95-mph darts, dizzy curves and diving changeups.

"Pedro's going to be tough," Indian catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. said. "That's why they gave him all that money--he's worth it. He's going to pitch like a $75-million man out there, we know that. We just have to see what we can do against him."

If Martinez does what he has done most of this season--dominate the opponent--then Boston will be one-third of the way to the league championship series, with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and the resurgent Bret Saberhagen ready to go in Games 2 and 3. Martinez is scheduled to reappear, if necessary, in the final game of this best-of-five series.

If Cleveland starter Jaret Wright, a playoff star as a late-season call-up in 1997, out-duels him, if Martinez can't emerge from his recent 1-3 slump, the Indians suddenly will have taken complete control of the series and nullified Boston's No. 1 mental and physical advantage.

The Red Sox have lost their last 13 playoff games, starting with Mookie Wilson's groundball through Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and moving through consecutive sweeps in '88 and '90 by the A's, and, more to the point, a sweep by the '95 Indians.

But all of those setbacks were suffered with Roger Clemens as the team's No. 1 starter, and Clemens is gone.

Now, it's Martinez's turn in the spotlight, and he is relishing the moment.

"It means a lot more than people expect," Martinez said Monday. "After I was traded from Montreal, I was a little upset at [Expo General Manager] Jim Beattie, because I wanted to win--and I think Boston was in last place last season.

"But once I got to Boston, they promised me they were going to prove to me that they wanted to win. I was tired of the situation in Montreal, where every year, it was the same thing. . . .

"I spent five long years in Montreal, and I never got a chance like this. This is my first chance, and I'm going to take full advantage of it."

In three strong starts against the Indians this year, Martinez was 2-0 with a 1.44 earned-run average, leading Boston to an 8-3 advantage in head-to-head play.

"I know that if you don't do the things you have to do to stay in the game and concentrate, they'll probably score 100 runs against you," Martinez said. "I try to be careful and be aware that those guys are probably some of the best hitters in the league--Manny Ramirez, who is having a great season, Kenny Lofton, David Justice, Jim Thome. . . . You have to respect those guys."

But the teams haven't faced each other since July 22. While Cleveland hit a dispiriting tailspin right at the end of the season--losing seven of its last eight games and almost the home-field advantage in the first round--Martinez himself has struggled in September, ruining his chance to win the league Cy Young award.

"His stuff has been the same," Red Sox Manager Jimy Williams said. "He has pitched some good games. In some of those games, maybe we haven't scored runs. So, there's nothing wrong with him--good arm, good fastball, good changeup. It's just one of those things with human beings that some people don't feel he is performing the way he should be. But as far as pure stuff, he's the same."

The Red Sox and Martinez catch a break because this series will be all day games. Martinez was 9-2 in day games this season, with a 2.15 ERA, and held opponents to a .202 batting average.

Said Indian Manager Mike Hargrove, "Good stuff gets good hitters out. That's a baseball truism and it really does happen. If Pedro's on his game, then things are going to be very, very tough for us."

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