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Day in the life of the AL East

3/31/2004

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Meanwhile, on the other side of that big ocean ...

On their way to meeting up for the second-most important game in the AL East on Tuesday, the Red Sox and Blue Jays pulled off a feat they could never recall finding a way to finagle before:

They gained a half-game on the Yankees in the standings -- in their sleep.

"I wasn't going to wake up at 5 a.m. to watch a baseball game," admitted Toronto bopper Carlos Delgado. "No offense to any baseball players. But that's a little early."

So what, we asked Delgado, would he wake up at 5 a.m. to see?

"A solar eclipse," he laughed. "That's about it. But I guess I don't have to worry about that too often."

Good point. But let's think about this. What would you say would be the more common occurrence:

  • A) a solar eclipse?

  • B) waking up early one morning, still ensconced in the laid-back fantasy land of spring training, and finding out the Yankees had already played a regular-season game -- and given up 15 hits and eight runs in the process?

    Or,

  • C) Pedro Martinez going out there in any kind of game -- spring-training, regular-season, winter-league or Wiffle Ball -- and giving up six runs before he got an out?

    Well, option A (solar eclipse) didn't happen Tuesday, as far as we know. But B and C took shape right before our eyes. And it was hard to tell which seemed more like some kind of really weird dream -- the 5 a.m. baseball game or the 1 p.m. Pedro implosion.

    Whatever, this was how the day unfolded in the life of the rest of the American League East on Tuesday -- the portion of the AL East that wasn't 7,000 miles from home.

    How it all started

    It began with the alarm blaring in Toronto manager Carlos Tosca's Florida bedroom. He knew just what to do when he heard it, too. He flipped on that TV.

    "Five o'clock is about when I wake up down here, anyway -- unfortunately," Tosca reported. "I thought, 'This is good. Maybe watching this for a while will actually get me going.'"

    For the record, he wasn't yawning when he said it.

    Meanwhile in Fort Myers, the Red Sox were rising for an early-morning two-hour bus ride. When they reached their clubhouse at City of Palms Park, the eighth and ninth innings from Tokyo were flickering across the clubhouse TVs.

    "It was kind of strange," Brian Daubach reported. "I remembered having the same reaction a few years ago, watching the Mets and Cubs. It didn't seem like a real game."

    It didn't seem much more real back in Dunedin, where a bunch of Blue Jays players had gathered in their locker room for an 8 a.m. meeting. They huddled around the TV watching the final outs of the Devil Rays' 8-3 win in Japan. For a team about to battle the Yankees for six months, it was a sight that sure beat watching the Today Show.

    "You know what's funny?" said Toronto's Josh Phelps. "The Today Show came on afterward. That might be a first, watching the Today Show after a game."

    So let's see if we got this straight: Victor Zambrano got the win. Mike Mussina took the loss. And Al Roker got the save? Well, it all seemed that mixed up.

    Since Aaron Boone's homer landed 167 days ago, we've all been waiting for the AL East race to rev itself up again for six more months of the most spectacular brand of reality-show entertainment.

    But back at Knology Park on Tuesday, the Red Sox and Blue Jays were having a hard time making it compute that this was how it started -- gaining ground on the Yankees before breakfast.

    "How does it feel," someone asked Red Sox manager Terry Francona, "to be a half-game up on the Yankees?"

    "That's the good news," Francona replied. "The bad news is, we're a half-game behind [the Devil Rays]."

    Which was, technically, true. But why do we think that wasn't how a certain owner of a certain Bronx baseball team was looking at it?

    "Did George fire anybody yet?" quipped one Blue Jays executive.

    Correct answer: Not that we know of. But stay tuned.

    In the rest of the baseball universe, they can joke about this, because there is just one place in the baseball universe where the only acceptable option is winning it all.

    But the rest of the AL East is making that tougher than ever. The Red Sox are eminently capable of winning the World Series. The Blue Jays get more dangerous by the day. And the Devil Rays and Orioles are going to cause trouble themselves.

    "They're the greatest team money can put together," Blue Jays pitcher Miguel Batista said of the Yankees. "But they still have to beat us. And they still have to beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

    "People say the Yankees are the team to beat," Batista philosophized. "But it's really the other way around. They're the ones that have to beat everybody."

    Follow the game plan

    It may be the Yankees that have to win. But in Boston, the Red Sox are being run like a team obsessed with being the big orange cone standing in their way.

    The formula is laid out pretty much perfectly: Just score 1,000 runs again. Then let Pedro, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe take care of the rest.

    But Trot Nixon (back) is already out for a month. The Nomar Garciaparra Achilles Tendon report sounds more ominous every day. And if that isn't enough to set off full-scale New England panic attacks, there is Pedro.

    He went to the mound Tuesday for his fifth (and final) start of spring training. His spring ERA (4.15) told you nothing. His spring radar-gun readings (86-88 mph, with an occasional 90-91 mph lightning bolt) seemed to tell you something much more revealing -- but what?

    He could be bored by the meaninglessness of life in the Grapefruit League, as some Red Sox officials suggest. He could be saving his bullets for the season. He could be protecting his shoulder while his agent talks contract with the Red Sox. With Pedro, it's never easy to say.

    But whatever it is, his start Tuesday was a sight you never, ever, ever expect to see. Not from this guy. Not this time of year. Not any time of year.

    The first four hitters he faced went: single, single, hit batter, single. The next hitter was Phelps, who ran the count to 2 and 2 -- then went lurching out of the way of a fastball that nearly scraped off his eyebrows.

    This was where the Pedro of old would finish Phelps off with an untouchable breaking ball or changeup, low and away. But the Pedro of Tuesday came back with a fastball that started out away and tailed back into the meat of the plate. Phelps mashed it over the fence in left. Grand slam. Gulp.

    "It would be nice," Phelps said later, "if that one went on the back of your bubblegum card. But there's not much I can do about that."

    It was the first time Phelps had ever faced Martinez. So it was tough for him to say whether his fastball had the usual zip.

    "But that one that came up and in looked pretty quick," he laughed. "I know that."

    After the slam, Martinez kicked at the dirt angrily, then promptly ran a 3-and-1 count on Eric Hinske. Who then smoked another home run. To make it 6-0. With still nobody out.

    Before he made it out of the inning, Martinez would serve up two more rockets -- a triple by Chris Woodward and an inning-ending shot to the track by Reed Johnson. Then he seemed to regain the feel for his change and curve well enough to spin two shutout innings. Which ended his day. It had taken him 84 pitches to get nine outs.

    Behind the plate, a section full of scouts scratched their heads. Martinez had touched 90 mph on just a couple of fastballs. He delivered them from an arm slot noticeably lower than the Pedro of old.

    "I could never give that guy a three-year contract," said one scout. "He's got two years left in him. Tops."

    Yet Martinez issued a statement, through the public-relations department, which professed this was "the best I've felt all spring." And his character witnesses -- his catcher, manager and pitching coach -- all reported they'd seem some good things.

    His longtime catcher, Jason Varitek, was upbeat about how, as the game wore on, Martinez had rediscovered his familiar rhythm and command.

    Asked for the view from the manager's seat, Francona joked, "I wish we'd started the game about 45 minutes later," but then reported he thought, on balance, Martinez "actually threw the ball OK."

    And pitching coach Dave Wallace chalked it all up to a case of the "spring-training yips."

    "He's just anxious to get going and get through spring training," Wallace said. "I've seen a lot of strange stuff happen this time of year."

    But this was, in reality, as strange as it gets. And Martinez's body language had communicated real frustration -- such as the time he got so irritated over not getting a low strike call from plate ump Marty Foster that he caught Varitek's toss back to the mound with his bare hand.

    "Remind me," Varitek quipped, "to throw it harder next time."

    But that emotion wasn't all bad. It might be more worrisome if a pitcher as great, and as competitive, as Pedro didn't show that type of frustration on a day like this.

    "I think, no matter who you are," Francona said, "no matter what time the game is played or where the game is played, you don't want to give up runs. But Pedro's also smart enough to know it's Tuesday in Dunedin -- and that doesn't have anything to do with Sunday (aka, Opening Day) in Baltimore.

    "I'll be very excited to watch him pitch Sunday night," Francona said. "And then the next Saturday after that. What's the word for today -- aberration? That's a good word. Get that in there."

    OK, it's in there. Except we don't know, for sure, if that's what this was.

    Pedro was kind enough to remind us, in his statement, that "it's spring training. The results don't matter."

    Which would, of course, make his results slightly different from Tuesday's results in the Orient. Which all counted. But whatever, they'll both have a distinct bearing on the AL East soap opera that is just beginning to unfurl -- between now and Halloween.

    So which was the real aberration: Devil Rays 8, Yankees 3? Pedro Martinez's surreal box-score line (3 IP, 8 H, 6 R)? Or both? Or neither?

    The good news is, we'll all know the answer in six months. Just don't ask us to deliver it at 5 a.m.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.