SAN FRANCISCO – Pedro Martinez half-skipped, half-twirled off the mound Tuesday night at AT&T Park, two months and two days since he'd limped from a mound in Florida.
The hand that had grabbed and massaged his own frayed hamstring now accepted pats of appreciation.
And so the New York Mets restarted their season, the one that began with championship expectations, the one that drifted again into a tangle of uninspired at-bats and enigmatic pitching, of competency checks for the manager and general manager.
Martinez threw six passable innings, or one more than he probably should have, when Willie Randolph pushed him to 109 pitches with a six-run lead over the San Francisco Giants on a typically cool Bay Area evening. Martinez, 36, had shoulder surgery in October and just finished up a two-month rehab for the hamstring, so perhaps was more in need of protection than a bullpen that happened to go 7 2/3 innings the night before.
But, these are Randolph's decisions and, after all, Randolph's neck, which has become the theme of the Mets' first two months. Another two like those and Randolph won't be around to hand Martinez the ball for 19 more pitches, from 90 to 109, which will be the theme of the coming two months.
"No, no, no, no," he said when asked if he'd considered turning the game over to sprier hamstrings and shoulders. "He felt good. He felt strong."
Martinez, too, was good with it. After touching 92 mph with his fastball, he threw some of his better breaking balls in the sixth after Rich Aurilia and Omar Vizquel began the inning with ringing hits.
"I felt really good," he said. "Willie asked me a couple times. And by the time I got pitching, I forgot."
With a small grin, he added, "I got away with it."
All that aside, the Mets of 29 wins and 28 losses grew a bit healthier, grew a bit grittier. And the left fielder, Moises Alou, who has batted .340 in the 14 games for which he's been available, seems sure to return to the lineup Friday. The Mets have a ways to come, beyond the 4½ games that separate them from first place. The offense still lurches from dynamic to pedestrian, the back end of the rotation – Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey – still flatlines too often, and over significant periods a lineup of superstars produces less often than it should.
Nothing's lost yet, but a long, underperforming calendar year – and one horrendous month – has left New Yorkers with a raised eyebrow (and the Wilpons, presumably, with a raised hatchet). So, in need of some good news, the Mets made way for Pedro, who arrived in their clubhouse about the time another Gotham savior, Joba Chamberlain, threw his 35th pitch of the first inning on the overhead televisions.
Martinez is a remarkable athlete, his sloping shoulders and delicate physique somehow generating 210 wins and an ERA well under 3.00, now about 2,500 innings after the Dodgers were sure he wouldn't last. He allowed seven hits and three runs, winning where Barry Zito lost, in the critical pitches where he needed to find a corner of the strike zone or the handle of a bat.
Two months into the season, the former Cy Young Award winners had one win between them.
And one blown hammy, one long rehab, one trip to the bullpen, two returns to the rotation, one retirement speculation, one denial of that, and two faltering teams.
Martinez went those six innings, forced some late curveballs with as much strength as he could gather and pumped his fist on his way from the field. Zito trudged off in the middle of the Mets' eight-run fifth inning, carrying five more walks and five more earned runs and one more loss (that's nine).
"Just what the doctor ordered," Randolph said. "That's the way you draw it up."
Martinez thought so. During his rehab, when he also returned home to tend to his ailing father, Martinez dumped the heavy weightlifting that consumed him last season and during spring training. As a result, he said, his arm felt looser, freer to fling his fastball into the low 90s. He said his hand and fingers had more life, even in the cold, breezy conditions. Signature Pedro, his arm angle changed with his mood, his fastball rose to the situation.
And, he had two hits in a game for the first time in nearly 11 years, both preceding double-barrel gun shots toward his dugout.
"Real good," he said. "Real good. Just how I expected to feel. I came off the field in the shape I went in. … I got my feet wet today. … It's not over til the season's over, but I must say I feel real, real good."
Yes, optimism. A win. Another start in five days. He was good again, he was strong, he was probably overworked. He didn't care.
"I'm just thankful I'm back," he said. "Hopefully, I'll stay a little longer."