FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Where'd the cheese go?
It's the question asked whenever Pedro Martinez pitches this spring. He hasn't been his usual dazzling self. His contract is up at the end of the season and there are talks of an extension. Or a move to the hated Yankees. The wildly talented, ever-fragile Pedro was at the epicenter of the seismic event that ended the biblical season of 2003 and this spring every pitch he makes is monitored.
In five innings of a 12-7 loss to the Twins yesterday -- his next-to-last outing before the season opener a week from Sunday -- Martinez gave up seven hits and three earned runs while striking out only one batter. He threw 70 pitches, 46 for strikes, and did not issue a walk.
Radar guns are fickle. Scouts at Pedro's earlier outings reported few clockings in the 90-mile-per-hour zone. Evidence was similarly scattered yesterday. Some said Pedro hit the 90s when he got agitated and pitched with some purpose to Jose Offerman with two on and two out in the fourth. Pedro said it doesn't matter. He said his last two pitches of 2003 were 95 and 97 m.p.h., respectively. The last one went for a seeing-eye, two-run, game-tying, manager-firing double off the bat of Jorge Posada.
So tell us, Pedro . . . have you lost your fastball. Where'd the cheese go? Are you going to become the latter-day, righthanded Frank Tanana? Will you erase "The Heat is On" and switch to "Killing Me Softly" on your iPod?
"You know what, guys? -- I'm a proud man," Martinez said after yesterday's outing. "If I ever feel like I can't compete or I can't put up the numbers I've been putting up or somewhere near, I'll just pack my cleats and go home. Give my cleats to my nephews and start playing catch with them. At this point, if you look at the last two years [combined 34-8], why would I worry about velocity, why would I worry about anything at all? I'm still No. 1, on top of a lot of good guys that we have on this team. They have me as the ace. Is that because of respect or is that because of the numbers?"
The numbers are pretty darn good. Actually, the numbers are off the charts. The numbers are Koufaxian. But Pedro is 32 now and his brother broke down early, and the Sox have had to baby him to maximize his gifts. And now the gun says he's slowing down. Can the Sox afford to invest more years and more millions in their ace?
What to make of the spring slowness? Is Pedro holding back, like a typical veteran? Or is he just no longer pitching in the fast lane?
"It's a nonissue," said manager Terry Francona. "He's getting ready to pitch for the season. He's getting ready at his pace."
Pedro's answer is unintentionally symmetrical. He says that in 1995, '96, '97, he was throwing 97, 98. That was then. This is 2004.
"I got hurt," he said. "I'm older. I got a lot of innings in this shoulder. I actually pitched the last three years around 91, 92. When I have to click, I clicked. So I will do that when I feel it's right. I thought I threw some fastballs over 90 today. I don't know what it was, but I felt it. I just knew when to throw it.
"Lost my fastball? . . . 90, 91, nobody lost a fastball. That's a good fastball. And if anybody wants to test it, let the scouts stand there with a bat, I'll beat them at 91 . . . You go to our minor league complex, you'll find a lot of guys at 95, 97 miles an hour and they're still in the minor leagues. Is that a coincidence? Why would that be?"
Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who met with Pedro and Martinez's agent, Fernando Cuza, earlier this week, said, "I look at Pedro's extraordinary productivity of the last few years rather than speculate on spring training. It is, after all, spring training. The key word being `training.' So we shouldn't overreact to anything that happens in spring training."
Martinez would not comment on the negotiations. Lucchino, who flew home to Boston yesterday, would only say, "We had a good and helpful meeting. Pedro's earned our respect and we told him that. But I would say this: Ordinarily, you like to diversify your portfolio so that players contracts don't all come up at the same time. Due to an unfortunate confluence of events, we are making some exceptions to our general policy about not negotiating during the season. We're relaxing that because of the number of core players whose contracts come up at the same time. So we're not on a stopwatch. We're not trying to get things done in the next six days."
David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra, and Martinez are five key Sox players going into the final years of their contracts. At this hour, Pedro appears to be the priority, but no one seems to be in a hurry. The process is somewhat slower, more deliberate. Just like Pedro's fastball.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.