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Curb your enthusiasm over Pedro

Pedro Martinez has now been a spot artist for as long as he was a master with the three best pitches and the most precise command in baseball. Most of that time he's been fading or faded, injured more often than not. By his own account, the last time he felt good was 2001.

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Mystique, which along with his mind and will is all he's had for much of the last few years, retires no one. So it was unsurprising that even his own coaches were skeptical before the 37-year-old Martinez made his first start in nearly a year on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field.

"He might do a good job," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "I'm not looking for the Pedro I used to see."

Pitching coach Rich Dubee wouldn't even admit to being any more excited over the return of a man whose prime surpassed that of Sandy Koufax than he might be for a random J.A. Happ start.

"Like every other game, I get excited," he said. "It's a big league baseball game."

Manuel and Dubee proved wise. A sentimentalist might choose to believe that Martinez made fools of the skeptics in Chicago by pitching five reasonable innings that offered the promise of more; no one else should. After the game Martinez told a lovely story about how his return fulfilled a promise made to his father as he lay dying in the Dominican Republic last year. He called himself "the old goat." He spoke of what it was like to go from being called the best in the world to sitting on a bench not knowing when he'd be called on to start: "It's another experience for me," he said.

As much as a win in which he went five innings and gave up three runs while feeling so good he didn't even need to ice down afterwards meant for one of the game's grand men, though, there are hopes of a championship in play. And while the player asserts flatly that he's going to improve, the public is entitled to its doubts. Baseball is better for the return of a mythic figure, but it isn't yet clear that his team is.

Martinez's five innings, firstly, were no more reasonable than those on offer from 46-year-old Jamie Moyer, whom the Phillies insulted by demoting him to the bullpen to make room for him. (After one start Martinez's ERA is now 5.40; Moyer's is 5.47.) More important than results, though, is that they were achieved against a weak Cubs lineup; and more important than that is how they were achieved.

Coming into the game, Manuel and Dubee were keyed in on Martinez's health and his speed, both of course tightly correlated. Reports from the minors had his fastball at 88 to 90 miles per hour; that, it was theorized, would be enough to offset his changeup and breaking pitches and achieve a better separation between his offerings than he was able to last year, when they all blurred together in a kind of slurry.

Against the Cubs, Martinez more than bettered this. At one point, according to Wrigley Field's radar, he reeled off pitches that came in between 91 and 93 over five of six pitches. With a dawdling slurve in the low 70s, a change that broke in under the knuckles of left-handed hitters in the high 70s, and a slider in the mid 80s, he has enough registers to keep hitters swinging early at slow pitches and late at faster ones, the key to his success for him now.

Speed is just one aspect of pitching, though, and the one that Martinez has yet to show he controls is the ability to put the ball where he needs it. "I didn't feel quite as confident about my command," he said after mentioning how pleased he was with his velocity, and for good reason: Bringing the ball in from his new, slightly lower arm angle, he was visibly wild whenever getting much above the mid 80s.

Doubtless some of this was due to rust, and some to excitement, and Pedro confessed to rushing his delivery. But the Cubs led off several innings with hard line drives off Martinez's light fastballs, showing it's not going to be quite enough for him to pitch accurately in the mid 80s while throwing erratically at higher speeds, as nice as it might be to think so. He's left a lot of movement on surgical tables over the years. Either he'll dial in his control at the high end, or a lot of what he serves is going to be hammered.

For the Phillies and their fans, the idea that Martinez might be an even more accomplished version of Moyer is worrisome; for everyone else, it should be irrelevant. By this point in his life, Koufax was a Hall of Famer of several years' standing, and if it weren't for modern medical technology, Martinez would be as well. However well he pitches, the thing is that he's pitching at all.

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