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For Pedro, present is a gift from the past

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 4, 2009 11:09 AM

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"In that game, he topped out at 86 mph. We had some pretty good hitters in our lineup and he took the bats out of our hands. After watching that, in that situation, there was no doubt in my mind that Pedro could pitch without the velocity."
-- Mike Hargrove, former manager of the Cleveland Indians, commenting earlier today on Pedro Martinez’s performance in Game 5 of the 1999 American League Division Series between the Red Sox and Indians.

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Pedro Martinez was at the peak of his greatness then, his legend growing with every single pitch. Ten years have passed since a wounded Martinez came out of the bullpen that night at Jacobs Field and shut down the mighty Cleveland Indians. Five days later, as if to prove that the game was not a fluke, Martinez similarly mystified the eventual world champion New York Yankees, relying largely on guile.

And so, yet again, we all are reminded that the past is merely prologue.

Pedro goes to the mound for Game 6 of the World Series tonight at Yankee Stadium, and here is the absolute, indisputable truth as the baseball world focuses in on him yet again: He really hasn’t changed at all. For all of the recent talk that Pedro, now 38 years old, has reinvented himself, that he has morphed from the power pitcher of his prime to the craftsman of his age, he was always the most adaptable and versatile of tacticians. Martinez always had the mind of Maddux to go along with the arm of Marichal, a combination that ultimately made him the Koufax of his era.

"If you look at some of the games he pitched against us [in the late '90s], he went entire innings throwing nothing but changeups and breaking balls. It was almost like he was rubbing our face in it,’’ said Hargrove. "The great ones can do that.’’

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who served as Hargrove's hitting coach on those Indians teams, explained to reporters yesterday how Pedro still gets it done. "First of all, he's got a tremendous feel to pitch. He knows how to pitch. He knows more about hitters than probably people give him credit for because he'll sit there and study the game, and he'll study the hitters and he'll sit there and talk to you sometimes. That's one thing I like about Pedro: he'll come over and talk to you, and he don't listen when you tell him how to pitch somebody, he'll tell you how he's going to pitch somebody.’’

And then Martinez executes the plan as if it were all so simple.

While acknowledging that there is simply no way to know how Martinez will perform tonight, the fact is that it does not really matter. Truth be told, Pedro probably should have been done already. Martinez was too small to hold up, as Tommy Lasorda warned years ago, and the Red Sox were convinced it was only a matter of time before his shoulder exploded. Between the warnings and the inevitability, Martinez built a Hall of Fame career and won three Cy Young awards. Now he is simply reaffirming the fact that he is one of the smartest pitchers of all-time in addition to being one of the most gifted.

Martinez was the losing pitcher in Game 2 of the World Series last week, but that was through no fault of his own. Even now, he can captivate a crowd like an aged McCartney can. Martinez threw 107 pitches in his Game 2 loss to loss New York, leaving the game with a 2-1 deficit in the seventh inning of an eventual 3-1 Yankees win. According to the game log on mlb.com, only four of Martinez’s pitches climbed as high as 90 mph. Pedro altered speeds -- he threw one curveball to Melky Cabrera that registered 67 mph -- and changed locations, making the Yankees often look as if they were trying to swat away bumble bees.

Said Hargrove, "He’s the kind of guy who, when he’s pitching against you, you just want to go out there with a bat and start beating on him. He can make you look that bad."

Said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira to reporters yesterday, "You’re not going to out-think Pedro. He’s one of the smartest pitchers in baseball.’’

Ever.

All of this brings us back to October 1999, when Martinez all but told us then to prepare for what we are seeing now. His manager (Jimy Williams) and his pitching coach (Joe Kerrigan) outright predicted that Pedro would be able to pitch well beyond his prime. After Pedro's performance against the Indians in Game 5, his brother and teammate Ramon, a former flamethrower who had been forced to change his style after an injury, revealed a bit of advice he shared with his sibling: "I told him, 'You don't have your fastball so you have to use your head.' When you feel 100 percent you can go right through the hitters. When you're not 100 percent, you have to pitch, not just throw. Tonight, he pitched."

Did he ever. Combined, in Game 5 of the AL Division Series that year and Game 3 of the AL Championship Series, Martinez barely cracked 90 mph (if at all) thanks to a strained shoulder suffered in Game 1 of the ALDS. He worked mostly in the mid-to-high 80s. In those two games, against two of the most prolific lineups in baseball, Martinez pitched 13 scoreless innings and allowed just two hits, striking out 20 and walking five. His matchup against the Yankees and Roger Clemens was a first-round knockout. His blanking of the Indians triggered the firing of Hargrove and the subsequent hiring of Manuel.

Don’t you see? Manuel, too, recognized this all a long, long time ago, when Martinez changed his stripes without skipping a beat in the midst of one of the great pitching seasons of all-time. That is undoubtedly why he remains so confident in his righthander now. Martinez’s arm is not what it once was, but his mind has not diminished at all.

"He's got a tremendous feel for the game, and he's still got talent when he executes his pitches as a pitcher should,’’ Manuel said yesterday. "He's definitely capable of throwing a very good ballgame, a real good ballgame. I'd look for him to definitely put us in a place where we can win the game."

But then, regardless of whether Martinez had a fastball, we all knew that a long time ago.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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