Monday, October 11, 2010

October 11, 1999: Pedro from the 'pen

CLEVELAND - It was desperation time in Cleveland. Game 5 of the ALDS was tied 8-8, and it was only the fourth inning. The previous three games had been slugfests, with both teams pitching staffs getting pounded around mercilessly. With six innings (at least) left in the deciding game of the series and both starters long gone, the teams were faced with needing exhausted pitching staffs to get them through to the next round.

But the Red Sox had the ultimate ace in the hole, and they took the ultimate gamble to try to win the series. Boston manager Jimy Williams made the call before the bottom of the fourth. The bullpen doors opened, and Pedro Martinez jogged toward the mound.

Martinez was the best pitcher alive in 1999. Pitching in the height of the steroids era, he had gone 23-4 with a 2.04 ERA that year. Considering the offensive explosion going on all around him, his season ranks among the best any pitcher had ever had. He was the rare pitcher dominating in a hitters' era.

But Martinez was hurt. He came out of game 1 after only four innings with an injury and wasn't expected to pitch the rest of the series. Boston's ultimate advantage, the one area where they were definitively better than Cleveland, was suddenly taken away from them. And game 5 should have been his to pitch, taking a lot of the stress away from the series. The game sure wouldn't have been tied 8-8 in the fourth inning if Pedro had been on the mound.

But there he was now. Still hurt, he came out to pitch anyway, the idea being that he could hold off Cleveland's offensive attack for long enough for Boston to take the lead, then give way for the final two innings. The Red Sox were hoping to get just two or three quality innings from their star.

What they got was vintage Pedro.

The first four batters Martinez faced were out, but with no strike outs. Maybe he didn't have his best stuff, so he'd have to beat them with finesse instead of power. But when Manny Ramirez walked, Pedro beared down, striking out the next two hitters to end the inning. It was on now.

There were two more strikeouts in the sixth, as Pedro had clearly found his groove. Then, in the top of the seventh, Boston seemingly snapped out of their admiration for their pitcher and realized they'd have to score if his performance were to mean anything. Troy O'Leary's three-run home run took care of that problem nicely. Suddenly, after opening the game scoring eight runs in the first three innings, the Indians were faced with the daunting task of coming back from three runs down against Pedro Martinez and only having three innings to do it.

Pedro wasn't having it. What was supposed to be a caretaking relief appearance, lasting just long enough to help the Red Sox take the lead, turned into a masterpiece. He breezed through the seventh and eighth innings while allowing only one baserunner, and after the Red Sox added one in the ninth, Martinez went out for the ninth to finish the job. It didn't take long. When he struck out Omar Vizquel for the final out, everybody was able to realize exactly what he had done: in a game in which he wasn't supposed to pitch at all because of an injury, Martinez had thrown six shutout innings in relief without giving up a hit. He struck out eight and walked three, completely dominating the American League's best offense.

The Red Sox lost the ALCS to the Yankees, with their only win in the series coming in game 3 with Martinez on the mound. He pitched brilliantly, striking out 12 and giving up only two hits in seven innings. It was a fitting cap to a brilliant season.

Pedro Martinez's 31 starts during the 1999 season were something to behold, truly pitching at its finest. But he may have never been better than those six innings in Cleveland, when he stepped out of the bullpen door and saved Boston's season.

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