CINCINNATI -- When Pedro Martinez walked to the mound for the first time in nearly a year Monday, he returned under his terms. From the moment he realized last year that his arm might never allow him the beauty of what it once accomplished all those majestic years, Martinez decided he would not leave the game as he did last September: a broken-down, aged pitcher.
So on an 88-degree day -- much like one from his home country, the Dominican Republic -- the three-time Cy Young Award winner threw five innings, limiting the
Reds, with the National League's best second-half offense, to just two earned runs and five hits in the Mets' 10-4 win. Less than a year after rotator cuff surgery, Martinez struck out four while confounding Cincinnati with guile instead of gas, and passing the first test in his comeback.
"This is the only time I'm going to do this, the first and last," Martinez said of his comeback. "I will not do that hard work again. It was too hard, it was too long, and I'm too deep in my career to actually take that struggle again. Under no circumstances will I go back and do that again."
His 11-month journey back from surgery was one of determination and, at times, isolation. The 35-year-old exhausted endless hours of conditioning to regain his strength, as well as his confidence. His older brother and idol, Ramon, had a similar surgery and the subsequent pain forced him to retire in 2001.
That's haunted Pedro ever since, and Ramon has been at his brother's side the entire way, even videotaping every rehab game Pedro pitched. He spotted small problems; Ramon noticed his brother's front hip moving too early, causing the mechanics in Pedro's delivery to get out of whack.
The doctors told Pedro no one's ever come back from his surgery in under a year.
"I'm very proud," Ramon said after the game, unable to contain his happiness with a wide grin. "He did great, better than I expected."
The feeling he had going into Pedro's first start was in concert with nearly everyone else's: uncertainty. But what he saw was his brother, while missing location at times, confident enough to make his pitches and to throw his fastball. Ramon knew the mental part of pitching would be Pedro's biggest hurdle, and he worried when Pedro opened the first inning by allowing three of the first four batters to reach, and two runs to score. Ramon thought his brother was letting his emotions get in the way.
But Pedro quickly settled in, retiring the next nine batters en route to his first win since Aug. 9 of last year.
"I'm happy I got out of it healthy," said Martinez, who threw 76 pitches, 47 for strikes. "I feel really humble about the fact that I'm right back here, after so many days of hard work."
Martinez pledged to rehab his arm the right way, and counterintuitively, he committed to patience. If not, then one of the lasting images of Martinez would be his third-to-last start last year in Pittsburgh, in which he cried in the dugout.
According to one team official, the Mets' front office was worried that Martinez's career was over. It wasn't; he made two more start in Atlanta last Sept. 27, allowing seven runs in 2 2/3 innings.
Instead of retiring, he told Guy Conti, the Mets' bullpen coach and his longtime confidant, he'd give it one last try. He had surgery and then labored through the warm Dominican winter, and later the sweltering Port St. Lucie, Fla., sun, trying to repair the damage inflicted on an arm that had gone 2,645 innings and produced 206 wins and 2,998 strikeouts before Monday.
Conti said he'd never seen Martinez work so hard and for so long. Chris Correnti, the former assistant trainer in Boston, worked as Martinez's personal strength coach, urging him on every day. Conti, so impressed by Martinez's program, said he challenged fellow rehabbers Duaner Sanchez and Juan Padilla to try and keep up with Martinez's workout.
"They lasted two days," Conti said. "And Sanchez told me he was sore all over his body. They aren't used to working at that level, that intensity."
And when Martinez returned Monday, it didn't take long for him to reach a career milestone. In the second inning, he struck out Reds starting pitcher Aaron Harang for his 3,000th strikeout. He became just the 15th pitcher in major league history to accomplish the feat.
"Nobody comes in here thinking he's a pushover," said Reds first baseman Scott Hatteberg, a former teammate of Martinez's in Boston. "He's Pedro Martinez; his name is synonymous with dominance. So we were aware and thankful that he didn't have his old stuff, but it still proved enough."
Jeff Brantley, a former major league reliever and now a broadcaster for the Reds, had rotator cuff surgery twice, and said, "I've had some women who've had shoulder surgery tell me it's worse than giving birth."
He wasn't joking. And he added he wasn't surprised Martinez was able to return from the surgery in under a year, but only because, "it's Pedro."
I see my family and all the people who have hope that I'm going to come back and have me as a role model. ... A lot of people don't understand. The better you are, the bigger your responsibility is.
-- Pedro Martinez
"If I'm sitting in [the Mets'] dugout, I'm more than pleased with what I saw today," Brantley said. "His changeup was around 74-75 mph, but he had six pitches that were 88-89. I can tell you right now, if Pedro can throw 88-89, he's going to be highly competitive for the times that he goes out there."
Martinez still isn't calling his return a comeback. He is hesitant, but very content with how he was able to change speeds and to retire major league hitters, not the minor leaguers he faced in his four rehab starts. Martinez even clocked at 88 mph in the fifth inning, and said he had more left in reserve. Mets manager Willie Randolph after the game called Maritnez a "warrior," and "amazing," even "superb."
For the Mets, who were floundering before Martinez's reunion with the team in Atlanta on Friday, their ace's return has injected energy and enthusiasm into the clubhouse; the team is 4-0 since he's rejoined it. For Martinez, it's proof that he's mentally stronger than even the reputation that preceded him.
He admitted that at times during his recovery he asked himself, "Why should I push myself so hard?" But he knew the answer, and that was to be an example to others. He's been beating the odds his entire life. This time is no different.
"I had to just think about some of the people who never stood a chance, who never had the opportunity [to come back]," Martinez said. "I see my family and all the people who have hope that I'm going to come back and have me as a role model ...
"A lot of people don't understand. The better you are, the bigger your responsibility is."
For one day -- and fittingly, it was Labor Day -- his victory was not only literal; it was arguably Martinez's hardest. He and the Mets hope there are more to come.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.