Cooling Off Without his old heat, tight-lipped Pedro Martinez relies more on guile

April 11, 2004

No pitcher with as much ability creates as much agita as Pedro
Martinez. After plugging through the worst spring training of his
career--a 6.75 ERA in five starts, along with decreased velocity
and a flattened arm angle that suggested a shoulder injury to
some--the most dominant righthanded starter of his generation
took the mound for Boston's season opener on Sunday night at
Camden Yards having something to prove. "He has defied criticism
so often in the past," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein says
of his 32-year-old ace, who has spent time on the disabled list
in four of the last five seasons, "that I'm sure he invites it
now."

Welcome or not, the criticism will persist. Without his full tool
kit--in the 43° chill he never gained a feel for his curve and
lacked his usual control--Martinez pitched not to dominate but to
minimize damage. He was nicked for seven hits and three runs, two
of them earned, over six innings, and took the loss in a game won
by Baltimore 7-2. Catcher Javy Lopez crushed an 88-mph,
down-the-middle fastball for a home run, the first regular-season
homer Martinez had surrendered to a righthanded hitter since
September 2002. (Perhaps still peeved at perceived mistreatment
by the media, Martinez left the ballpark before the game ended
and didn't speak to reporters.)

True, Martinez's velocity topped out at 91 mph--roughly his
spring training peak--but numbers on a radar gun are a simplistic
and ultimately reductive way of assessing his performance. As
Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada said after the game, "He can
throw 89, 90 and he's still nasty." Since his injury-riddled 2001
season, during which he sustained a small rotator-cuff tear,
Martinez rarely throws his fastball in the mid-90s and now
operates mostly in the high-80s to low-90s range, relying more on
location as well as his changeup and curveball.

Martinez has learned to conserve his energy and his best pitches
for the game's most critical situations. On Sunday he trailed 3-0
in the bottom of the second with runners on second and third and
none out, facing the top of the Baltimore order. He responded by
uncorking his liveliest sequence of fastballs in the game, eight
of them cracking 90 mph. "He can dig deep when he needs it," said
Orioles leftfielder Larry Bigbie.

Whether this reinvention of himself succeeds will heavily
influence Martinez's contract situation. After this season (for
which he's earning $17.5 million) he can become a free agent, and
talks with the Red Sox are proceeding slowly. Boston likely wants
to see an effective, healthy season from Martinez before
committing serious dollars. "We're going to work long and hard to
get Pedro re-signed," Epstein says, "but the only thing we can
control is doing what's in the best interests of the
organization."

Though his regular-season debut was uneven, Martinez's teammates
circled the wagons around him. "He settled in and kept us in the
game, and that's what we want out of our starters," said catcher
Jason Varitek. Those are lower expectations than the Red Sox have
ever had for Martinez, who in the past was counted on not merely
to keep games close but to win them, it sometimes seemed,
single-handedly.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON (TOP) Martinez topped out at 91 mph on Sunday, but as Tejada said,"He's still nasty."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)