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Pitching like it's 1999?


PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Johan Santana limbered up for his unofficial debut as the Mets' new ace Friday, a still-arriving crowd at Tradition Field buzzing with anticipation and a palpable electricity in the Florida air. The hype surrounding his arrival had reached its springtime zenith. Such is the case when the best pitcher in baseball makes his first start for one of the sport's most-watched franchises.

Earlier in the day, on a back field at the Mets' complex late Friday morning, not far from the main stadium but miles away from the frenzy, Pedro Martinez breezed happily through another workout, pitching to batters for the first time this spring in front of a dozen or so onlookers. His curveball, mostly under wraps to this point, was biting. His fastball was lively. He was vintage Pedro. Hatless in the Florida sun, jabbering with hitters between pitches. Smiling. Laughing.

After the 50-pitch workout, Martinez literally hopped off the mound to share fist-bumps with manager Willie Randolph, pitching coach Rick Peterson, a couple of teammates and owner Fred Wilpon. The excitement among the men was palpable. A few minutes later, leaning on Wilpon's golf cart, Martinez talked animatedly with the owner about how he was feeling, the pitches he was working on and what he had left to accomplish this spring.

This is the absolute best that Mets' fans could hope for. This is better than the Yankees screwing up or Jimmy Rollins getting a case of lockjaw. This the spring of Pedro's big comeback, and all is good. As good as it has been with him in a long, long, looong time.

"Even though you pitch, you're not supposed to complain, according to you guys," Martinez told after the workout. "When something's not right, you try to battle it out and you go out there and you pitch. And sometimes you get away with good games, especially if you use your head and your experience. And people think, 'He's fine.'

"But since 1999, after I got hurt in Cleveland, I've never thrown this way. I feel great. I feel like the Pedro of '97, '98."

Santana was batted around in his debut on Friday afternoon, and now there are worries about first baseman Carlos Delgado's hip. Yet if Mets' fans need some good news this spring, all they have to do is look Martinez's way. If he pitches half as well as he looks right now, the Mets are in great shape. If he can return to the way he pitched in the late '90s -- he won the National League Cy Young Award with the Expos in '97, and the American League Cy Young in 1999 -- this spring will have been a rip-roaring success. And a shot in the gut for the rest of the NL.

Come on, now. A 1-2 rotational power punch of Santana-Martinez, both on top of their games? It would instantly become one of the best in baseball [see chart]. It'd hardly seem fair.

"There's only a small handful of true aces out there, true No. 1s," says Mets third baseman David Wright. "If it's the Pedro of old, if he's back to what he was two, three years ago, that's a pretty good 1-2. If he's the Pedro of '97 ..."

Martinez has done plenty since the late '90s, of course. Since his magical 23-4 season in 1999, he's gone 102-43. He threw at least 200 innings in three of those years and was close to it in another. But a series of nagging injuries -- starting, maybe, with the one against the Indians in the playoffs back in '99 -- has sapped much of his effectiveness.

When he signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Mets before the 2005 season, there were a lot of questions about a sore shoulder, which is one of the reasons that the Red Sox didn't try harder to keep him. In his one full season with the team -- that first one, in 2005 -- he made 31 starts, went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA and allowed less than one baserunner per inning, the best in the NL in that category. But the sore right shoulder finally caught up to him in 2006, and in October of that year -- after 23 starts that season -- he had rotator cuff surgery.

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The surgery knocked him out of all but five September starts last season, when he showed middling velocity on his fastball in his carefully guarded return to pitching, going 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA. Now, he says he's back and ready to fire. He's felt so good that, last week, he said he'd listen to an offer from the Mets to extend his contract. He's due to make $11 million in the final year of the deal. The Mets, for now, aren't biting.

"I just threw around 50 pitches, and I feel like I can go out and throw 50 more," Martinez said after his workout. "I feel healthy."

To just about everyone who has seen him, he looks healthy, too. "I think, physically, this is the best that I've seen him since he became a Met," Wright says.

Even Martinez will admit that he's no longer the Mets' ace. That title now falls to Santana, by virtue of his record six-year, $137.5 million contract and two Cy Young Awards in the past four years. But Martinez, ever-confident, isn't about to back down to anybody else as far as being the one to count on.

"There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being No. 1, and I could still be that guy," he told the New York Daily News last week, "except that we have probably the best pitcher in baseball right now in Johan. That's a credit that nobody can take away from him."

If anyone can challenge Santana for team ace, though, it's a late-'90s Martinez. That's a battle that the Mets, and their fans, would love to see.

With Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez, the Mets have perhaps the best 1-2 pitching punch in baseball. Here are some others:

C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, Indians: Two 19-game winners in '07 return for '08.

Erik Bedard and Felix Hernandez, Mariners: Trade for lefty Bedard takes heat off King Felix.

Jake Peavy and Chris Young, Padres: Combined for 64 starts, 2.79 ERA in '07.

Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: Cy Young winner, Japanese ace best in East.

John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, Braves: Bounce-back '07 was Hudson's best year in NL.