Commentary

Martinez still putting on a show

Originally Published: August 13, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Pedro Martinez couldn't pitch all night. But, man, he could talk.

After a much-awaited return to the majors, Martinez was in an expansive mood.

He talked about expectations and goals. He talked about a promise to a dying father and the unusual experience of being in a major league uniform with no idea about when he would pitch. He discussed the Cubs' never-ending sale. He called himself the Old Goat. He held back tears. He mixed speeds and anecdotes.

Martinez, the three-time Cy Young winner and World Series champion, talked and talked, filling recorders and tape for nearly 20 minutes, long after the last disgruntled Cubs fan left the building. If you're a baseball fan, it was good to see him back; if you're a Phillies fan, it was even better to see him pitch.

The old Pedro Martinez, one of the most exciting pitchers in the game, is gone forever, but Old Pedro Martinez, still 10 years younger than the guy he replaced in the rotation, Jamie Moyer, is a nice August pickup for a Phillies team with dreams of October.

The Phillies probably don't need much help to clinch a third straight National League East title, but come October, can Martinez be the guy they need to pitch with Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ and Cole Hamels? Martinez thinks so.

"I'm not going to say it in words, but just try me out there," he said. "Give me the opportunity. I pray to God I can stay healthy and do those things. I've done them before. I don't know if you know, but I've got three Cy Youngs in my house. The playoffs? I've been there, and I've won a lot of games, too. I've got one of those big things [a World Series title]. But now I need the cycle, the National League."

With those familiar curls spilling out of the back of his hat, Martinez threw his entire arsenal for strikes against the Cubs on Wednesday night, pitching five innings in the Phillies' 12-5 win, their second in a row at Wrigley Field. He gave up three runs on seven hits, striking out five and walking one. He threw 99 pitches, 64 for strikes, and got his fastball up to 92 mph, while throwing changeups in the high 70s. He threw curves and sliders and generally kept the Cubs off-balance, though the way they've hit this season, that's often not very difficult.

"I'm healthy and I'm going to prove, regardless of what happened [Wednesday], I'm going to improve," he said. "I expect to improve, especially because I'm healthy."

The Phillies gave the 37-year-old a nice welcome-back present, scoring four runs in the first three innings and then eight in the fourth. It was Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija's first big league start, and it just didn't go well.

Pedro enjoyed the show, especially when the Phillies hit a pair of three-run homers in the fourth, turning the game into a rout.

[+] EnlargePedro Martinez
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPedro Martinez's debut with the Phillies went as well as it could -- five solid innings and an easy win over the Cubs.

"I hope nothing changes," Martinez said of the Phillies' 14-hit (eight for extra bases) attack. "I hope everything continues to be the same. For myself, I want to do a little better for them, and give the bullpen a little more rest."

For all the good vibes surrounding this start, Martinez barely made it out of the fifth. After giving up one run on four hits in the first four innings, he got off to a rocky start. Koyie Hill led off with a single and Martinez issued his first walk, to pitcher Sean Marshall, of all people. Ryan Theriot singled and after a brief meeting on the mound, Milton Bradley scored Hill with another single.

That's when you figured his night was over, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Martinez had a little more rope left. Martinez got Derrek Lee to pop out to first and Jake Fox to hit an RBI sacrifice fly to Shane Victorino, who was doused with a beer from a Cubs fan for his troubles. Kosuke Fukudome flew out to left to end the inning.

"I was a little too excited," Martinez said. "Getting too excited was making me rush a bit to throw my pitches."

Manuel thought it was a nice first start.

"I liked the things I saw," Manuel said. "He was throwing 86-92, in that range. The more he pitches, the more we can get him stretched out. I think he could go six, seven innings."

Martinez, who improved his career record to 215-99, had hitters chasing his off-speed pitches, swinging at 42 percent, according to ESPN Research, 11 percent higher than the major league average.

"You could see, I have life in my arm," he said. "Physically I feel good."

Martinez said he hasn't felt this healthy since "early 2001," before going on the DL with shoulder tendinitis late in the year.

"Early 2001 was the last time I could say, 'I pitched today, tomorrow do you want to play long toss?'" Martinez said. "Honestly speaking, I've never been this healthy since. You might see me throwing a softball [Thursday]."

He hasn't pitched a full season since 2005, when he was 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA for the Mets. He had rotator cuff surgery in 2007 and suffered through a 5-6 (20 starts), 5.61 ERA season in 2008, a season that essentially ended when his father passed away in late July after a long bout with brain cancer.

When he returned to the Dominican Republic to see his father, Pablo Jaime, around the All-Star break, Pedro said he would stay at his side, not go back to New York. But his father pushed him back and the dutiful son never forgot about that. His father died a little more than a week later, though Pedro remembered its being only a few days.

"Last year was a horrible year, a very tough year for me," he said. "I promised my dad I would come back and play baseball like he asked me, in his last words. Making it back makes me feel like I took something off my shoulder."

Martinez fought back tears as he talked about his father. He said he never told a reporter about his father's final words to him.

"After our last conversation, I felt like something was missing," he said. "After that, I never recouped, really. Mentally and physically, I wasn't there."

Martinez said he feels rejuvenated after being away from the game. He spent most of the season throwing in the Dominican and noted that a handful of teams that scouted him are short in the rotation right now -- including the Cubs, with Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly on the 15-day DL.

"Too bad it didn't work out here with the ownership situation changing hands," he said.

The Phillies signed Martinez on July 15 and put him on the DL with a right shoulder strain. He made only three starts in the minors. He didn't know he was starting this game until the Phillies arrived in Chicago. His arrival pushed the team leader in wins, Moyer, grudgingly to the bullpen (10-9, 5.47 ERA). The Phillies' staff has been its Achilles' heel, but now it's starting to take shape.

"If anybody fails, they count on the Old Goat to go out there and stand up," he said.

The Old Goat never got the can of cash he was seeking in the spring, but he still wound up signing a prorated $2 million deal.

With 51 more games to go, he could make almost $1.5 million if he remains in the rotation the rest of the season, according to some media reports. If he can pitch in October, it's a bargain.

"Come September and October, those are the games I'm really setting my mind for," he said.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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