The last time Pedro Martinez was on this kind of stage, he was already done being the unstoppable ace who lit up Fenway Park from 1998 to 2003, the right-handed pitcher whose mound presence was so commanding and whose change-up was so filthy, it rendered a surname pointless.
That kind of a run doesn’t last forever, and when Martinez pitched for the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series, he was already a supporting act. It was Curt Schilling, not Martinez, who pitched his way into Red Sox lore with his performance in ending the Red Sox’s 86-year drought.
Martinez? Sure, he was competent in the 2004 postseason, trying to turn in seven workmanlike innings when he was asked, but he just wasn’t Pedro anymore.
Injuries had already put his best days behind him, and though he parlayed a solid 2004 season (16-9, 3.90 ERA) into a four-year deal with the New York Mets, he couldn’t escape health issues and was largely a bust with a big contract - which is to say with the Mets, he fit right in.
Now, long after he stopped being that Pedro, Martinez is being asked to save a season again - or at least preserve it.
The Philadelphia Phillies are counting on Martinez in Saturday’s Game 3 of their National League Division Series with the Colorado Rockies, which is tied at 1-1 after the Rockies defeated Cole Hamels, last year’s World Series MVP, in Game 2 on Thursday.
Before the series began, manager Charlie Manuel had no shortage of options for Game 3. He had reliable right-hander Joe Blanton, who was in the Phillies’ rotation during their World Series run last year, and impressive rookie J.A. Happ. Yet it was Martinez whom Manuel held back from bullpen duty in the first two games, preserving him in case he was needed to go into Coors Field with temperatures hovering in the mid-30s and snow looming.
It’s a lot to ask of the 37-year-old. He’s not throwing 96 mph fastballs anymore, setting up that change-up to seem suspended in midair as it approaches the plate. The difference in velocity between his fastball and change-up has been cut in half, if not more. But if you assembled the active pitchers with more experience in big games than Martinez, they wouldn’t fill up a room.
In Manuel’s mind, Martinez doesn’t even need his vintage stuff to win in the postseason. He has faced - and lost to - Martinez when he has been less than perfect.
Manuel was a coach for the Cleveland Indians during the 1999 ALDS, when Martinez was at the height of his dominance in Boston, coming off a 23-4 season that easily would net him his second Cy Young Award. But in Game 5, he was a tired pitcher merely giving whatever he had left.
That night, the Indians scored eight runs off Bret Saberhagen and Charles Nagy in the first three innings, leading 8-7 as Boston fought to keep up. Manager Jimy Williams had few options left, so he turned to Martinez, who had pitched in Game 1 of the series and was battling a sore shoulder.
No matter. He entered the game in the fourth inning, struck out eight in six no-hit innings, propelled the Red Sox to a series-clinching 12-8 victory and wrote one of his most legendary performances with little more than a dead arm and an endless reserve of guile.
“That night when he came in, he was throwing about - his velocity is about 84, 86. I was getting on our hitters because he was getting us out,” Manuel said. “And he pitched a heck of a game that night. And it was cold that night. But at the same time, he had tremendous command and he did a heck of a job.”
It’s the precedent Martinez has set to make Manuel believe he can do it again. And it’s why, with a crucial game coming Saturday, he’s banking on Martinez somehow being Pedro one more time.
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