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'Signature moment' for Pedro

ST. LOUIS -- They know there are still people in New England walking around, wondering how they're going to blow it this time.

They know there are still people -- hundreds of thousands of people who know no other way of life -- who think they are just being set up for the Red Sox Collapse to End All Red Sox Collapses, As if That Were Even Possible Anymore.

But we are going to say this really slowly, just to let it sink in:

One more win, and the Boston Red Sox are going to win the World Series.

No, really. This is not a joke. This is not a dream. This is not some phony story on some parody Web site that was actually written by the staff of the Onion.

Nope. This is real. This is happening.

One more win, and they're all off the hook -- Bill Buckner and Mike Torrez, Bill Lee and Johnny Pesky, John McNamara and Darrell Johnson. All the goats. All the ghosts. All the nightmares.

One more win, and the Boston Red Sox will have lived through the most amazing 10-day turnaround in the history of sports. Ten days.

One minute, they were three outs away from getting swept by the Yankees, with Mariano Rivera on the mound. Now, a week and a half later, they're one win away from finishing off a staggering World Series annihilation of a team that won 105 games this year.

"We set out this spring to be the best," said Johnny Damon late on a Tuesday night, after the 4-1 Game 3 victory over the Cardinals that gave these Red Sox a 3-games-to-nada lead. "And now we're one win away from being the best."

One win away. You understand there are people in this world who are 80 years old -- 85 years old, 86 even -- who have never witnessed this. Who thought they'd never live to witness this. The Boston Red Sox know that, too. They are all too aware of their place in the lives of all of these people.

"Hopefully," Damon said, "we'll make their dream come true. But hopefully, they won't do what they always say would happen."

He let that one hang there, just long enough, until the folks around his locker had to ask. OK, what exactly did they always say would happen?

"You know, a lot of people say they didn't want to die until the Red Sox won the World Series," Damon said, then paused again to let his listeners mull what that meant.

"Well," he said, "there could be a lot of busy ambulances tomorrow."

Yes, many lives will be complete if the Red Sox win a World Series. There is a beauty in that on a level that reverberates far beyond these stadiums they play in. But in this clubhouse -- full of all these hairy, loony men -- many careers will be complete, too.

And none more than the man who took the baseball Tuesday night -- Pedro Martinez.

He is 33 years old now. Thirteen seasons, 321 starts, 11 postseason starts and 2,300 innings into a Hall of Fame career.

But none of those seasons ended like this one. And all of those starts, all of those seasons, had one thing in common:

None of them came in a World Series.

"Pedro had done everything there was to do in his career," said Kevin Millar, "except win a World Series game. Well, he finally got to do that tonight."

You think back on all those seasons when the great Pedro essentially was the Red Sox. For how many years was this team constructed to get to this spot and hand Pedro the baseball?

Except they could never get to this spot.

Until now.

"I've been on this team with Petey for seven years," said Derek Lowe, the man who will start the game Wednesday that could clinch the World Series. "And this is the one year he wasn't asked to go out there and win Game 1, Game 4 and Game 7 because if we didn't, we didn't have a chance. Well, all I know is, if you could tell any team in baseball that if they were up in the World Series, 2 games to 0, and had a chance to pitch Pedro Martinez, they'd relish that chance."

Yet, it's a funny thing. His fastball barely cracked 90 mph Tuesday night.

Of the 37 pitches he threw in the first two innings, only 19 of them passed through the strike zone.

He needed two improbable defensive plays by that Purple Glove-winning duo, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, to bail him out of two early crises, in the first and third innings.

But when Martinez walked off the mound after three adventurous innings, there were no Cardinals runs on the scoreboard. And the St. Louis Cardinals had just made a biiiiig mistake.

They had allowed the great Pedro to get loose. And get confident. And get a lead. And after that, they never had a shot.

"Once they didn't score in that [third] inning," Martinez said later, "I said, 'It's up to me now.' "

Of the last 14 hitters he faced, zero reached base. Only four got ahead in the count. Just one hit a ball that had to be run down by an outfielder.

This may not have quite been vintage Pedro -- not in the way that, say, 1999 was vintage Pedro. But if this was a man on the tail end of his career, then how come his teammates felt so good about seeing him out there?

"Every time he pitches," said catcher Jason Varitek, "it's 'What's wrong with Pedro?' Why? Because he's not striking out 19? I don't know what all that's about. I'm just real happy for him."

In the seven innings Martinez was out there, he allowed just three hits -- all of them to the first 10 hitters he faced. After that, he found his disappearing changeup, and it was all over.

He induced more swings and misses (13) in his 98 pitches than the Cardinals' three starting pitchers combined have in this Series (11, in 248 pitches). And as he walked off the mound for the final time, he'd just spun four consecutive 1-2-3 innings -- which was one more time than his offense had gone three-up, three-down in the entire World Series.

"You know, that's not the best I've seen Petey throw," said another longtime teammate, Trot Nixon. "But I've seen him throw a lot of meaningful games, and he did what he always does. He keeps the hitters off balance, and he finds a way to get them out."

We combed through all of Martinez's previous postseason appearances. We couldn't find one other game in which he set down that many hitters in a row. It was, in many ways, a night that conjured up memories of his greatest postseason moment -- Game 5 of the 1999 Division Series against Cleveland -- when he marched out of the bullpen to throw six hitless innings with a sore back and no fastball.

"I'll never forget that night," Nixon said. "I'll never forget seeing him come out of that bullpen and quieting that crowd in Cleveland. That was a very loud crowd, but they got very calm after that bullpen door opened and Pedro came out."

And now there is this game. You got the feeling these men who have played alongside Martinez all these years would never forget this game, either, for a million reasons.

"This," said Damon, "was his signature moment. People will be talking about this for a long time, because they always wanted to see Pedro in a World Series."

But he wasn't just in a World Series. This was the night he pitched them to within one victory of winning a World Series. And for all they know -- for all he knows -- it might well have been the last night he will ever pitch in this uniform.

"You just never know," Varitek said. "But if it was, I cherish every moment I ever had with him. It was emotional for me to have him have that kind of outing. I know that.

"I've been with him for a long time," his catcher went on. "To have that scrutiny he's under all the time, and then to go out there and perform like that, I'm proud of him. I'm proud to have caught him."

It is probably no better than 50-50 that he is coming back. He is still looking for Hall of Famer money, at a stage of his career when he isn't that Pedro anymore.

It is an open secret that he has a partially torn labrum, deep within his shoulder. And everyone knows it isn't as if those torn labrums ever get better.

He also has done some things and said some things lately that haven't exactly endeared him to the people who will have to decide how hard they want to work to bring him back.

So as he sat at the World Series podium on one of the most special nights of his career, he felt moved enough to say two things.

One was: He wants to stay.

The other was: Goodbye.

"It's been great," he said. "It's been a great ride. I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I did. Even with the struggles I've had up and down during the season, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed every moment. I enjoyed my career in Boston.

"I hope I get another chance to come back with this team," he went on. "But if I don't, I understand the business part of it. I just hope that many other people understand -- and understand that I wasn't the one that wanted to leave. I'm only doing what I have to do. And they're going to have their chances to get me back in that uniform. If they don't get me, it's probably because they didn't try hard enough."

At least, if this was it, he left them with one more Pedro classic. Just two other Red Sox pitchers ever threw seven shutout innings or more in a World Series game on the road. One was Bruce Hurst in 1986. The other was someone named George Ruth, in a year that still flashes in neon in the brain of every Red Sox fan -- 1918.

Had that comeback against the Yankees never happened, this night never could have happened. And that would have been a tragedy -- for a pitcher this great to never have set foot in the grand World Series amphitheater.

"If this had never happened, that would have been wrong," Damon said. "We've all been waiting to see him get to throw in a World Series. But to see him go out and do what he did, I mean, wow. I'm so happy for him.

"He's been taking a beating for so long over what was going on with the Yankees. And now here, on the biggest stage, he stepped up and showed the world what one of the best pitchers who ever lived can do.

"He still has it," said Johnny Damon. "He still has that thing that makes him great. He knew what he had to do. And he knew we depended on him. And that's the sign of a winner."

What they have to do now, they will have to do without him -- unless they reach Game 7. Lowe gets the ball in Game 4. Tim Wakefield gets the ball in Game 5, if there is one. If they go back to Boston next weekend, amid panic in the streets, the tentative plan is for Bronson Arroyo to start Game 6 and for Curt Schilling and Pedro to form a scare-the-heck-out-of-them tag team in Game 7.

But it should never come to that. The Boston Red Sox are one win away. And then all those 86-year-old New Englanders can die happy -- if they don't die from worrying about whether they can live through one more day to make it to game time.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.