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Martinez Thankful for Every Game

Pro baseball: Red Sox pitcher has a new perspective, living with the knowledge that he's one injury from making his final appearance.

April 28, 2002|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

BALTIMORE — Every game, every inning, every single pitch is now precious to Pedro Martinez. Because, even though he is only 30-years-old, he doesn't know how many more he has left. Every day he wakes, wondering about the state of his right shoulder. After all, Sandy Koufax quit at 30. The brightest flames sometimes burn out first.

So, Thursday at Camden Yards was incredibly delicious for Martinez. Five days before, he pitched eight shutout innings, allowing only one hit--the first sign in a year that the old Pedro might return to us. Now, he's done it again with seven one-hit innings to beat the Orioles, 7-0. This time Pedro did it with flourish--10 strikeouts and a no-hitter in progress for 52/3 innings.

"This is still a year to wonder ... I don't trust myself. It is inning to inning," said Martinez who was disabled twice last season and did not win a game from last May 30 until early this month. "Every day is a new adventure. I am still in 'wonder'-land."

Baseball has no more precious pitcher and person than Pedro--nor one more precariously perched at the very top of the sport. He has the strikeout stuff and stifling presence of Randy Johnson, yet is almost a foot shorter. He has the every-man physique of Greg Maddux, as well as the same touch, craft and acumen, yet he throws almost 10 mph faster.

No other pitcher approaches his combination of qualities, his variety of attack. Perhaps none ever has. He is the slim deceiver one moment, then the intimidator, even the knockdown menace, the next. He torments hitters like a picador with sliders and change-ups, then finishes them off like a matador with blazing heat or a curve as sharp as any in the game. With his best stuff, he can humiliate whole teams. On his worst days, he can still drive them crazy with cunning and win anyway with next to nothing.

That's why, every time he takes the mound this season, the whole baseball world, not just the fatalistic Red Sox Nation, goes to the hill with him. He is irreplaceable, infectious, adorable. And living on the edge.

"I have to be patient with myself unless I want to risk my career," he said, adding that he would have left the game when he reached his pitch-count limit, even with a no-hitter in progress. "This is actually fear. My career was this far from being over."

And he holds his fingers a couple of inches apart. This distance is metaphorical, not physiological. His problem is tendinitis, and the cure is rest, though all sore shoulders make doctors think "rotator cuff."

Last season, Martinez threw "one pitch to that kid in Tampa Bay, and I knew it was bad. I couldn't stop the pain. I couldn't even shower. Now I appreciate every single pitch I make."

The Orioles are hardly a challenge for any pitcher, especially a great one. They could take batting practice in a hotel lobby without breaking the lamps. Still, Martinez's rising fastball hit 95 mph, his sinking and tailing fastballs were only a mile or two slower and all his off-speed pitches were so precise it seemed unethical.

'That's twice we've heard (from scouts) that he doesn't have the same (stuff) he used to," Orioles Manager Mike Hargrove said. "I've yet to see (evidence of) it. ... He had command of all his pitches anywhere in the count. Just nasty curves and sliders. He can make Babe Ruth look like Baby Ruth."

The only change-up all day that didn't dive below the knees was the one that Gary Matthews Jr. lined into right field for a clean single. The Red Sox are in first place but have no hope of staying there unless Pedro has a season like his first three in Boston-19-7, 23-4, 18-6--not last year's 7-3.

"Five or 10 starts won't dictate how I finish the season," Martinez said, "and that is what matters."

Still, the Red Sox can hope, such as hope is in New England. "I like what I see," Manager Grady Little said. "If there are any doubters, he killed off those few."

Baseball needs Martinez not just for his pitching, but his personality. "On days when I'm not pitching, I'm a jumpy, happy guy," he says.

But he's also a prickly one and a theatrical one. This month, he passed Randy Johnson as the pitcher who reached 2,000 career strikeouts in the fewest innings (1,711). So, the Big Unit, as well as Koufax, Walter Johnson and Bob Feller, can step back.

Martinez used the moment to jab former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda who favored trading him (even up for Delino DeShields) in 1993.

"Tommy said I'm only a five-inning pitcher," Martinez said. "Not bad for a five-inning pitcher."

Martinez, who for four years starting in 1997 in Montreal was as brilliant as any pitcher in history, has no more seasons to waste or opportunities to pass up. His three Cy Young Awards will never go away. But, on any pitch, he could be back where he was last spring.

The buzz is that, wonderful as he was Thursday, he's still not and might never again be quite the whole Pedro package. Who knows how many days are left for special occasions, for no-hitters?

"Tell the president he owes me a visit to the White House," Martinez says.

"You have to win the World Series to get invited to the White House," says a Boston writer.

The Red Sox haven't won a Series since 1918. Martinez recoils at the reminder, as if a black cat just walked under a ladder.

He reconsiders, but doesn't change his mind. The President used to own a major league team. Time is short. So are careers. The Red Sox might not win again for another 84 years.

"Tell him when everything is settled down, I want to come for a visit."

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