Saturday October 17th, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- After Pedro Martinez had slicked his curls and packed his man purse, he stood in front of his locker at Dodger Stadium, holding a baseball he waited 18 years to get his hands on. The ball was signed by every member of the 1991 Bakersfield Dodgers, then the club's Class A affiliate, a team that featured Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi and Martinez on the same roster. The ball was a gift from a friend in Southern California, meant to honor Martinez's homecoming, and as the 37-year-old pitcher stared at the faded ink, a smile crept across his face from curl to curl.

Martinez may be known for his ruthlessness, the headhunter who once said he'd like to hit Babe Ruth in the backside, but he has grown increasingly sentimental with age. He likes to talk about caring for his mother, tending to his garden, praying to his God. So after he threw seven shutout innings in Game 2 of the NLCS on Friday at Dodger Stadium, only to watch the Phillies squander his performance in spectacular fashion, he sounded less disappointed than proud. He had returned to the ballpark where he made his debut 17 autumns ago and he had pitched just as well, if not better. On Sept. 24, 1992, Martinez came out of the bullpen and gave up two hits. On Friday afternoon, he started and gave up just two hits again.

Martinez only signed with the Phillies in July, injured a rib last month and was working on a 17-day layoff, but the Dodgers should have known they were in trouble when they checked the thermostat. It was 93 degrees at game time, stifling for most players, perfectly comfortable for Martinez. In Boston, he complained endlessly about low temperatures in the playoffs, but in Los Angeles he finally found an October afternoon that reminded him of his native Dominican Republic. "That's my weather," he said. Still, he felt enough of a chill in the air to wear a long-sleeve T-shirt under his jersey.

He retired the side in order in the first and the second, and as he walked to the dugout, he seemed to have convinced himself it was 1999 again. Martinez is nowhere near the same pitcher, age having sapped many miles per hour, but at least he has rediscovered his aura. He did not allow an extra-base hit. He let only one runner reach scoring position. Twice he popped up his good friend, Manny Ramirez, and once he struck him out. For old times sake, he even went up and in on Russell Martin and hit him. Dodgers' manager Joe Torre compared him to Greg Maddux. "Even though he doesn't have the same velocity he once did," Torre said, "he did a masterful job."

Martinez, always keenly aware of his surroundings, surveyed the crowd between pitches. He saw Lakers star Kobe Bryant. He saw former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda "trying to get the rally hat going." When Martinez left after the seventh, he did not point to the sky, his custom dating back to the Boston days, but simply pumped a fist. He had thrown only 87 pitches, and in a game last month, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel let him throw 130. But Manuel decided to pull Martinez -- "I think he was spent," Manuel said -- and entrusted the game to another former Dodger, Chan Ho Park.

The Phillies needed five pitchers to get through the eighth, and in the process, they ruined one of the sweetest storylines of this post-season. They misplayed a bunt. They walked in a run. They allowed a run on a high throw by second baseman Chase Utley, his second errant toss in as many days. They showed none of the poise that Martinez had shown them. As a result, the Phillies have cracked the door for the Dodgers, when they could have taken a 2-0 series lead and prepared to close it out at Citizens Bank Park.

Now, there is a chance they will have to come back to Dodger Stadium, and guess who would be in line to start a possible Game 7? If Martinez is looking for a dramatic farewell tour, the stage has been set.

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