Unconventional wisdom

Jeff Passan

While he is a fairly stubborn man – Pedro Martinez did, remember, insist on toting around his midget friend during the Red Sox's 2004 World Series run – feistiness cannot save an aging arm.

And it's with that in mind that Martinez pitches these days for the New York Mets, currently baseball's best team, throwing fastballs at 85 and 86 mph and other speeds that would only draw a warning from a forgiving traffic cop.

Tonight, when Martinez goes for his 200th career victory, it will be easy to remember the Pedro of old, who, starting with his first Cy Young Award in 1997, strung together a seven-year stretch equaled only by Sandy Koufax. Martinez's surname was immaterial. He was Pedro, the mightiest of mites at 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, and he blew everyone away with the indifference of a sniper. Challenge that fact, and he might give you a 97-mph buzzcut. In his fifth major-league start, Martinez lost a perfect game with one out in the eighth inning when he hit Reggie Sanders on an 0-2 pitch. And Sanders still charged the mound. In 2000, Martinez plunked Gerald Williams, the Devil Rays' leadoff hitter, in the first inning. He charged the mound, too.

Now, Pedro is … crafty. At 34, he is more like Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and David Wells and Mike Mussina, all 200-game winners, than Randy Johnson, his previous peer in fear and the only other active member of the 200-win club. Martinez is here for the exact opposite reason that he became such a good pitcher in the first place: He decided not to be hard-headed and thus kept his career alive by transforming himself.

"I don't think I could really understand it until I got away from it," said Jason Varitek, Martinez's catcher for seven seasons in Boston. "And I really get what it is now: He can pitch and win at low velocity. He can mix it up and do a lot of different things, and he can completely, utterly dominate at high velocity. I've seen him at both. And there's been no better."

Most attribute that to Martinez's willingness to work inside, though a look at the detailed splits of his pitches show that Martinez works on the outside corners close to 40 percent of the time. Jose Guillen, the latest to feel the sting of a Martinez hit-by-pitch, may beg to differ.

Only the throbbing doesn't last well into the night like it used to. On a good day, Martinez's fastball will consistently hit 90 mph. On big pitches, such as the one he used to induce Guillen into an inning-ending double play last week, it can hit 92.

"When you take 7 or 8 miles per hour off your fastball," a National League scout said, "to hitters it's like a shark tasting blood."

Yet last September, in St. Louis, that scout watched Martinez pitch against the Cardinals, and he marveled at Pedro's reinvention. Though the lineup was missing Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, the Cardinals were on the verge of sweeping the Mets in four games.

"And he shut them down," the scout said. "His fastball's below average, but he has a top-of-the-scale changeup. That's an equalizer. He kind of pitches backward now."

Injuries did in the old Pedro. When he signed a four-year, $53 million deal in December 2004, conventional wisdom said he might be good for only a couple years, then would break down completely, whether it was his shoulder or elbow or hip.

This spring, it was his right big toe. Because the injury was to the last digit that pushes off the ground during his delivery, Martinez babied it and missed most of the spring. His wildness in the first game, during which he hit three batters – Nos. 120, 121 and 122 of his career, pushing him to 26th on the all-time list – was due to rust, not intent. No longer can Martinez win with his pure stuff. Precision, one of his hallmark qualities in the past, matters now even more.

"He's so cerebral," Varitek said. "But the biggest thing he has is desire and competitiveness to make up any difference. He wants to beat you."

And that, as much as anything, is the impetus behind Martinez's makeover. In 2004, he tried to pitch like his old self, and he put up the worst numbers of his career. Seven shutout innings in the third game of the World Series gave him a temporary reprieve from the inevitable.

Martinez now uses his fastball to set up other pitches. His big curveball, the one that he unfairly threw for strikes on so many 2-0 pitches, looms even bigger. His changeup still floats like an autumn leaf, so innocuous until it drops into the dirt.

"Nobody," Seattle Mariners outfielder Matt Lawton said recently, "makes their living off guys like Pedro Martinez."

Certainly not before. And as he proves with each start, not now, either.

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