- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK Want to know how April can turn into October? All it takes is a collision of the galaxies or, in baseball's street language, unleashing heat against heat.
In other words, let Pedro Martinez go one-on-one against John Smoltz, sit back and forget the season is too young for all this adrenaline. With two future Hall of Famers facing each other at Shea tonight, it's impossible not to feel a little breathless. Even the stoic Bobby Cox likens the matchup to "Koufax against Marichal."
The hype isn't fueled just by the imagination but also by the still-fresh images of the April 10 game that was, by the description of hitters from both the Mets and Braves, one of the greatest pitching matchups in recent history. Smoltz struck out 15 in 7-1/3 innings, but Pedro outlasted him, striking out nine in what turned into a 6-1 New York victory.
Two weeks later, the Mets are still talking about that triumph over Smoltz as a miniature turning point. They'd lost five straight games to begin the season prior to the first Pedro-Smoltz war and ran into a pitcher who was, in every respect, unhittable.
Cliff Floyd qualifies as an expert witness, having struck out three times. He was so helpless against Smoltz's two-strike splitters that he later admitted he'd all but surrendered to the Braves' right-hander.
"It's like you have no chance, it's the worst feeling in the world," Floyd said. "You don't start the at-bat feeling that way, but when Smoltz is throwing like that, at 0-2 you're beaten."
The Braves and Mets might not be relishing the idea of an encore at least not the hitters but the two pitchers clearly love the challenge. Martinez, who's been among the National League's hottest pitchers all month, was so impressed with Smoltz's arsenal that day, he said, "I would pay just to watch John pitch."
Similarly, Smoltz marveled at Martinez's aura, calculating that "he [already] has a two-run lead because of that intimidation. I have that, too, but people are waiting to see if I've still got it."
Smoltz was making an oblique reference to his 0-3 record and the suggestions that the Braves would've been smart to keep him in the bullpen. The right-hander flatly says he's better and happier in the starting rotation, and he has turned his first month into a crusade to prove his point.
Just for emphasis, Smoltz told reporters again on Monday he's staying in the rotation, today, tomorrow and for the rest of the season. There'll be no 11th-hour return to closing in the playoffs, either. Even after his disastrous Opening Day performance against the Marlins, when he allowed seven runs in 1-2/3 innings, Smoltz never wavered.
"This is what I do, what I know," he said, referring to starting. "This is what I know best."
Since that day one start his first after nearly four full years in the bullpen Smoltz has been almost unhittable, allowing just five runs in 21-1/3 innings. But before sweeping the Phillies last weekend, the Braves were averaging just .164 with runners in scoring position. That's what Cox was referring to when the manager said, "We can't seem to score any runs for John."
It doesn't figure to get any better tonight against Pedro, who's keeping opponents to a ridiculous .113 average. Scouts say Martinez is throwing harder today than he was in his last two years with the Red Sox, a consistent 93 mph, with so much action on his breaking pitches that Mike Piazza admitted he was having trouble catching him.
The last time the two were paired, April 16 against the Marlins, Martinez was charged with three wild pitches one more than he threw in all of 2004. The 36-year-old Piazza sheepishly said, "I'm not as mobile as I was 10 years ago, I'm doing the best I can. When Pedro gets going, you just throw your glove out there. There's not a lot of catchers even in their prime that could control some of those pitches."
Coincidence or not, Ramon Castro was behind the plate when Pedro faced the Marlins again last Thursday. Although manager Willie Randolph insisted Piazza was merely resting, it'll be worth noting who catches Pedro tonight. The rookie manager was still weighing Piazza's big-hit potential against the inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch challenge of keeping up with Pedro's slider and changeup.
This much is certain: Martinez understands the importance of taking on Smoltz and how much it would mean to the Mets to beat him twice in the same month. Pedro loves this responsibility. He loves the attention, the crowds and the chance to take apart hitters when he knows every inning becomes its own apocalypse, even in April.
Asked what has impressed him most about Martinez so far, Randolph said, "He's a lot more intelligent than people give him credit for. He doesn't just rear back and throw. He's very in tune with the flow of the game."
The Braves and Mets are already bracing for an encore of fast, futile at-bats. Fastballs, sliders, splitters it was like picking your poison, the hitters said. It was like being caught in the war of the worlds.
"[The Braves] were telling me how nasty Pedro was, and I was like, 'Cry me a river,'" Mets first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "That was the best game I've ever seen pitched against me. Every single at-bat was a battle."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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