By 2003, the shine of invincibility came off of Pedro Martinez a bit. He was still the ace of the staff and one of the elite pitchers in the game, and that was never in question. But he’d lost a little on his fastball, and his stamina was down. As would be famously demonstrated later in the season, he was typically gassed after 100 pitches.
One August start has always stood out to me, an odd combination of gutty performance and brilliance. On a late summer night in Fenway Park in Boston, Pedro worked through the Anaheim Angels for a 4-2 win to keep the Red Sox within striking distance of the first-place Yankees in the division.
But he did not do it easily.
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At this point in my life, I was a month away from starting my senior year of college and working as a part-time staffer on the sports desk at a daily newspaper. I worked up agate for the scoreboard page, wrote high school sports stories, proofed pages and, I believe, watched between 145 and 150 of the Red Sox’ 162 games that year. The only games I missed were thanks to Pearl Jam concerts or work.
I vividly remember this night, however. It was a Wednesday, I was taking the calls, and sitting in a cubicle slightly off of where I normally sat, in a position where I had to keep spinning my chair around to face the department TV. Pedro was on the mound against the defending champs and old friend Aaron Sele, once a Sox prospect and now a solid starter in Southern California.
Boston started out easily enough. Pedro whizzed through the first three innings, allowing a single in the second (erased by a double play) and a two-out single in the third before quickly ending that inning. Things continued that way in the fourth and the fifth — two hits here, a walk there — but still, no runners advancing past second base. And with the Red Sox scoring two runs in the bottom of the fourth, with help from one of my favorite moments in baseball, a David Ortiz triple, things were looking up for the hometown nine.
Nomar Garciaparra, the other iconoclastic Red Sock of the day, homered off Sele in the bottom of the fifth, but in the top of the sixth, the Angels answered. Pedro struck out Darin Erstad looking to start the inning, but back-to-back doubles to Tim Salmon and Garrett Anderson gave the Angels their first run. Pedro worked the next two batters to ground out to second, and got out of the inning.
The seventh inning was another one of loud outs. Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy hit a deep fly to Johnny Damon in center, and catcher Bengi Molina ripped the first pitch he saw for a single. At this point, Pedro was starting to look a little worn down. Lots of stepping off the mound, wiping off the sweat and squeezing the ball between his palms. He got the next batter to strikeout, gave up a double to David Eckstein to put batters on second and third, but squinted down and got Erstad to hit it back to the mound. Another sweaty inning, but no damage.
The eighth inning went much better for Boston. Pedro struck out the side on 15 pitches, and in the bottom half, Johnny Damon drove in the fourth run for a little insurance. It’s now 4-1 going into the ninth, and Pedro was coming out to try to finish it.
He had thrown 107 pitches at this point, on the line of whether or not starters would be sent back out for the ninth. But this was a game the Red Sox wanted, and they were led by a manager, Grady Little, would infamously did not trust the bullpen. This was an old-school kind of night, and Pedro tried to finish what he started.
Jeff DaVanon grounded out to start the inning. Beautiful. But Kennedy got to first on an error by David McCarty at first base. Kennedy went to second on defensive indifference, and stayed there after Molina popped out to Garciaparra. Two outs.
Robb Quinlan decided Pedro wasn’t working enough, though, and singled on an 0-2 pitch to bring in Kennedy, narrowing the gap 4-2. Eckstein, that gnat, doubled off the wall to put runners on second and third. The tying run was now in scoring position. Mound conferences, frantic announcing by the Sox broadcasters, and now there are twists in my stomach and I’m severely neglecting whatever duties my editor was trying to give me.
Erstad walks up to the plate. Pedro hits him with the first pitch. You have to be kidding me.
Now the bases are loaded. Tim Salmon, who already had a double in the game, comes up. A base hit likely ties it. Pedro has now thrown 122 pitches.
Salmon worked the count to 2-2. The fans at Fenway Park were screaming now, the camera zooming in on Pedro’s face, beads of perspiration rolling down. Pedro went back, whipped a fastball past Salmon, and he took it. Strike three. The crowd roared, Pedro stepped off the mound and pointed to the sky, and no one looked more relieved than his catcher, Jason Varitek.
Pedro’s line for the night was a weird one. He struck out 11 batters, but gave up 10 hits, only walked one batter, and hit one in a bad position. It wasn’t pretty, but through it all, he got the job done.
Later in his career, as his fastball ticked down around 90, it wasn’t always easy for Martinez, but more often that not, he worked through batters, put his changeup and curve just where he’d want it, and was able to outsmart batters. Through devastating invincibility or mere greatness, he got the job done. Even if he made everyone sweat a bit.