Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Hard Hits: Pedro, Not Big Unit Lighting Up New York

When the Mets signed Pedro Martinez to that four-year deal worth $52 million, most fans were skeptical due to the length of the contract. The 33-year-old Dominican dandy was coming off a down season with the Red Sox in which he won 16 games but saw his ERA climb to 3.90.

Coming to Shea Stadium, he was supposed to be on the downside of his career. Pedro was done. Washed up. Just another aging pitcher who would flame out with the Mets. Mets fans had been accustomed to seeing guys their ball club acquired fall apart. Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and even Tom Glavine had all been examples of why the Mets were second fiddle to the Yankees.

But this season, something strange has happened in just 10 weeks. Somehow, with all the pressure of New York, Pedro has flourished taking the city by storm. Meanwhile, in what is fast becoming the Bronx Zoo from yesteryear, the Yankees' big acquisition Randy Johnson has been average, looking more like Sterling Hitchcock.

While Johnson struggles to get out no-names such as Emil Brown and Jeff Cirillo, Pedro shuts down all comers, mixing a 90-91 MPH fastball with a wicked curve or slider, baffling opponents in the process. And the best part? He does it in a fun demeanor, showing much emotion on the mound and lifting his teammates in the process.

He cheers when they make good plays behind him. This seems to have become a regular occurrence when he's on the mound. Last week against Arizona, Mike Cameron stumbled in right chasing a fly ball but stuck his glove out while flat on his stomach and somehow caught the ball. Pedro pointed to Cameron and clapped. His defense has given him plenty to be excited about.

Free agent pickup Carlos Beltran seems to love playing when the righthanded ace pitches. Just ask him why he has hit all seven of his homers while Pedro has been out there.

In his most recent outing Tuesday night against the Astros, Pedro had great stuff early and the 39,953 Shea spectators including 10,000 walk-ups sensed that they might be a part of history.

Martinez was in control right away retiring the first nine Astros. After he walked Orlando Palmeiro to start the fourth, Pedro quickly induced rookie Chris Burke into a six-four-three double play and then retired Craig Biggio on a fly out to Cameron. By the time he fanned opposing starter Roy Oswalt to get through the sixth, the fans were even more energized, hoping to witness the first ever no-hitter in Mets history.

But with one out in the seventh when Burke got a hold of a 1-1 offering that had too much of the plate and hit it into the Mets bullpen for his first major league homer, the no-hitter was history and the game was just a 2-1 lead for the Amazins. Martinez would give up a single to Lance Berkman in the frame but when the Mets tacked on a run, Martinez finished strong, retiring the final seven batters, including the last four by strikeout. He K'd 12 Astros. While he dominated, Pedro even got his second hit of the season (first to outfield) and scored a run.

When he got his revenge on Burke looking to end the game, Pedro pumped his fist and the home crowd went wild and started chanting, "Pedro, Pedro, Pedro!" Martinez, who was doing a postgame interview with MSG's Matt Loughlin saluted the fans and talked about how from the very beginning on Opening Day, those fans gave him a loud ovation, embracing him as one of their own. You could tell it meant a lot to the flambuoyant pitcher. When it was over, one fan in particular, who couldn't have been older than 10, bowed down to Pedro. This was the kind of electric atmosphere GM Omar Minaya had envisioned. For once, the Mets have gotten one right.

Martinez 110-pitch complete game two-hit masterpiece was his second CG of the season. He is now 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA and an NL leading 104 strikeouts. If not for the bullpen blowing three other games, he could have 10 wins. All season long, Pedro has given up just 46 hits and walked just 13 in 88 innings. That translates to a remarkable 0.67 WHIP. It means that he has been so dominant, that if the season ended today, he'd win his fourth career Cy Young and first since 2000.

All this from a pitcher who was supposed to be 'damaged goods' according to Boston brass. Think they couldn't use him now with Curt Schilling nowhere close to returning and with their starters struggling?

The Mets come out looking like geniuses. How great a pickup has this been? Martinez even discovered a flaw in Glavine's delivery. Since he corrected it, suddenly the 39-year-old crafty lefty has been pitching better. This is what great pitchers can do. He has brought instant credibility to a franchise that has been a laughingstock since losing in five to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

The Mets are the team two games over .500 coming together and showing fire on the bench while making some noise in a crowded NL East.

Meanwhile, the Yankees just look old and slow. They show little energy these days. Oh. And Johnson is just 5-5 with a subpar 4.07 ERA and 12 homers permitted. Carl Pavano is 4-5 with a 4.38 ERA and 14 long balls served up. Kevin Brown continues to struggle with a 4-6 record and an ERA over 5.00 with one alibi after another. Even Mike Mussina is just 6-4 with a 4.33 ERA. Do any of these guys given how they've pitched strike fear into opponents and can anchor a staff the way Martinez has?

Know who the most reliable starter has been? 25-year-old rookie Chien-Ming Wang. He's 3-1 with a 4.03 ERA and has gone at least six innings every start and just allowed one homer. Contrast that with all the other aging pitchers who have a tendency to leave pitches up and put their team behind.

Maybe this is the start of the Mets taking over New York again like they did back in '86 and '88.

One other thing about what Pedro has done for the Mets. He has given them the kind of dominant hurler they haven't had since Dwight Gooden. Gooden was the last pitcher with the kind of electric stuff and aura that could create a stir. Sure. They had David Cone. But nobody captured Queens like Gooden.

Pedro gives that to them almost 20 years later. He sure is a lot more fun to watch on the mound than the stoic, emotionless Johnson.

Who would have thought that back in April?

Hitting Back:

-If the Spurs didn't explode in the fourth quarter of Game One of the NBA Finals against the Pistons, it would have been unwatchable.

-Is anyone more exciting in this series than Manu Ginobli?

-If these games started any later, I'd swear they were TV-MA rated and should be on Showtime.

-He's a great baseball and football announcer but Al Michaels doesn't have a clue about basketball. Don't tell the geniuses at ABC that. They never make a mistake. Not like Mike Breen would have been a better choice!

-Kudos to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for doing the right thing for New York City and saying no to Mayor Bloomberg's ridiculous West Side Stadium proposal. Finally, a politician with principles who gets it. Maybe now Bloomberg will get the message that you can't buy everything.

-Rafael Nadal's enthusiasm on the tennis court along with his game makes him a must watch.

-Why do we have to know every gory detail about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Sure, they make a cute couple and Jolie is a knockout. But can't the press finally leave them alone?

-A summer later, finally the NHL and NHLPA are on the right track to reaching a new CBA agreement. My question is where was the same urgency last year?

-When does Randy Johnson finally blame his poor outings on CBS' Duke Castiglione and that cameraman?


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