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BOB RYAN

Fall classic by Martinez

BALTIMORE -- I would have bet my house, my car, my Ted Williams autograph on the back of a picture of the 4-year-old me, as well as my entire Sinatra and Basie collections: Jerry Hairston Jr. was going down. It was just a matter of which weapon Pedro Martinez would choose.

It was the bottom of the eighth. The Red Sox led, 5-0, and Pedro had a 2-2 count on the lesser-known of baseball's third- generation players. He had thrown 113 pitches. He knew he was coming out after this inning. And he still has a strong theatrical sense. He wanted to go out with a ponchado.

The choice? A 93-mile-per-hour heater. Hairston had no chance. It was a swinging strike three, and another superb Pedro Martinez outing was in the books.

Don't ever take this man for granted. Pedro Martinez remains the gold standard of contemporary pitchers. Yeah, we all wish he could go nine more often, but it's time for us to get over it. It's 2003, and when you have someone who can give you what Pedro does, you thank the man upstairs for providing you with such a treasure and start daydreaming about his next start.

Pedro's not getting the Cy this year, even if he wins out and finishes 15-4 with a ERA in the fairly low 2s. But whoever does get the Cy had better mention Pedro's name in his acceptance speech, as in "I cannot tell you how humbled I am by receiving an award we all know rightly belongs to Pedro Martinez."

On a crucial road trip that featured seven quality starts in nine games, the best starting job of them all came yesterday afternoon, when Pedro blanked the Orioles on three hits over the first eight innings before handing the baton to Alan Embree, who worked an impressive 2-K, 1-2-3 ninth. The Red Sox gave Pedro a lift before he even took the mound with three runs in the first, and that proved to be a totally unfair advantage on a day when Pedro showcased his entire repertoire.

"When Pedro throws the way he was throwing today, it makes things difficult for everybody," said Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove. "Giving up three runs in the first made our jobs doubly tough."

"Pedro's got a two-something ERA," said Kevin Millar, whose two-run single was the key blow in the three-run first. "When we score three in the first, we figure we're gonna win." Pedro didn't need any great fielding help; he just needed his strong right arm and his Einstein baseball brain. The only semblance of drama came in the third, when Geronimo Gil led off with a single to left and Pedro walked Tim Raines Jr. to put men on first and second with none out. Pedro got Hairston looking and retired Luis Matos on a routine 6-4-3 double-play grounder.

Matos likewise figured in the only other mini-drama his next time up. With two away and none on in the sixth, Pedro fell behind Matos, 3 and 0. To this point he had been emphasizing curves, sliders, changeups, and fastballs in the 88-m.p.h.-to-90-m.p.h. range. Now, for the first time in the game, Pedro was ready to dial it up. Matos took three mighty cuts at a) a 91-m.p.h. fastball, b) a 93-m.p.h. fastball, and c) a 93-m.p.h. fastball. Now that's pure Pedro.

"He had better stuff today," said Jason Varitek, who has been Pedro's patient spokesman during his inexplicably foolish media boycott. "He was stronger, so he had better location, better pop, and a better changeup."

Varitek said that those last two heaters to Matos in the sixth weren't necessarily isolated examples of Pedro's fastball. "He threw a good one in Gil's second at-bat [a four-pitch punchout], but I think the really good thing today was that he had a great late break on his curveball."

Let the record show that he had 17 called strikes, and the mind's eye thinks the great preponderance of them were on breaking balls. Oriole batters appeared to be genuinely confused for most of the afternoon.

"I've faced Pedro," sympathized Todd Walker, "and on a day like this it's no fun. You're up there thinking about the fact that he's got four quality pitches that he can throw at any time. It's ranging from a fastball up there in the zone to a curveball painting the corner, and when you're on his side, it's a lot of fun to watch."

Pedro is now 12-4 with a league-leading 2.36 earned run average (oh, and his nine strikeouts put him ahead in that category, too), and while 12 wins on Sept. 10 may not sound like Walter Johnson stuff, please recall that Pedro has had 10 no-decisions. Here's one you can chew on: Yesterday was the 10th time this year he has gone seven innings or more while allowing one or fewer runs. There aren't a lot of pitchers in either league who can make that statement.

He's got three more regular-season starts, and they are games everyone wearing a Red Sox uniform expects to win. "I can't imagine it's going to be any different the rest of September, and right into the playoffs," said Walker.

If so, Pedro will gladly concede the Cy. This year, he and his teammates have a bigger and broader goal.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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