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09/03/07 1:55 PM ET
Pedro a wonder to behold
Righty has overcome doubters to become 3,000-K man
When we last saw Pedro Martinez, he had been reduced to tears by the frustration and pain from a frail body that had finally turned on him. So, after 13 years, the Dodgers were proven right. Los Angeles had dealt Ramon Martinez's little brother to Montreal following the 1993 season because its brain thrust persuaded general manager Fred Claire that Pedro was too little, his skinny frame unlikely to withstand the torque of his violent delivery. And, sure enough, by August 2006, Pedro Martinez was coming undone. Body parts gave out like high-risers blinking off in a blackout: Right hip, right calf, left calf, rotator cuff. Of course, in the interim, before having to retreat into the body shop, Martinez blazed the kind of trail that invariably leads to the threshold of the Hall of Fame. In Canada and Boston and briefly in Flushing, this 5-foot-11, 170-pound dynamo pitched for a dozen seasons with matchless domination. That's why his body's betrayal had sent him over the edge. Humility in small doses is fine, but he was getting a buffet spread of it. And 21 runs in less than 12 innings of his last four starts hurled him right past humility to self-doubt. Martinez wasn't ready to hang a "30," journalistic code for "it's over," on his career. Rather, he returned, self-proclaimed as good as ever, to put up a 3,000 -- a truly charmed circle among strikeout artists. Martinez's second comeback strikeout made him the 15th member of the 3,000-K Club, a baseball fraternity thus more exclusive than those for 3,000 hits, 500 homers, 600 stolen bases or even 300 wins. It was another endorsement of his Cooperstown application, and a nice immediate reward for the private hell of rehabilitation that has brought him back on the rubber. Physical repairs and mental adjustments done, Martinez's disposition and pitching future are both brighter. We're getting our favorite bitter-beer mug back. Hale and hungry, Martinez is rejoining the Mets' push for the National League East title. Rejoining? Martinez hadn't pitched for the Mets since last Sept. 27, hadn't won for them since last Aug. 9. What has he had to do with a division lead turning the corner of Labor Day? Everything. This latest golden era of Mets baseball began when Martinez, at new general manager Omar Minaya's calculated urging, came to them as a free agent, taking a mutual chance with a club coming off a 71-91 season in 2004. He instantly became the new magnetic face of a hurting franchise, leading off an influx -- Carlos Beltran, Billy Wagner, Moises Alou -- that helped turn the Mets into a balanced power. So he jumped back aboard a juggernaut that he helped launch. This is a different Pedro. Physical trauma has to leave marks on even the best, the seemingly most indestructible. In Minor League rehab outings, his fastball seldom sped out of the 80s, essentially topping out at the same 86-88 mph that it had prior to the surgeries. But Martinez had never blown away his victims, anyway. Change-of-pace and smarts have always been his main weapons. Even before returning to the Mets' rotation, he was already giving big league hitters something to think about by promising to be able to dial up the heater as needed. So, let the mind games begin. The games Martinez most looks forward to will begin in October. A year ago, being forced off the Mets' runaway bandwagon just as it was pulling into the playoffs was another reason he broke down after breaking down. This time, he can be postseason reinforcement. It brings to mind some unsolicited advice Joe Torre received after Randy Johnson enlisted in 2005 with a Yankees club that had managed 101 regular-season wins without his help in 2004: Throw him just enough to keep him sharp, and save him for October. Connoisseurs of the art of pitching hope Martinez will rekindle, not blur, memories of his decade of utter domination. He has been nothing less than the right-handed image of Sandy Koufax, whose heyday has gained mythical stature. In its entirety, however, Koufax's career consisted of a record of 165-87, with an ERA of 2.76 and barely more than a strikeout an inning (2,396 in 2,324). Martinez returns to work with 41 more wins yet only five more losses than are on the Koufax resume (a career record of 206-92); the only pitchers in MLB history with higher winning percentages are Spud Chandler, who won a total of only 109 games, and Al Spalding, who did his pitching while the country was still cleaning up from the Civil War. Pedro's career ERA is 2.81. And there are the strikeouts, the essence of pitching superiority. The game's caretakers dote on this knockout response to long balls. Baseball's other 3,000-K men are either in the Hall of Fame, should be (Bert Blyleven) or are still active. Remarkably, considering the historically thin ranks, Martinez became the fifth active pitcher with 3,000 whiffs, joining Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling. A sixth, John Smoltz, is only a few dozen away and will enlist early in the 2008 season. This generation may never be reprised: Just another casualty of pitch counts, which obviously put a ceiling on strikeout potential, instead motivating guys to pitch to contact. However, individuals are certain to sustain this punch-out tradition. Contemporaries with the best chance of reaching 3,000 include a trio of 26-year-olds who have already passed 1,000. Of them, Jake Peavy stands out. The right-hander already holds the San Diego career record of 1,047 strikeouts, and consistently rings up double-figure totals. But C.C. Sabathia (1,107) and Carlos Zambrano (1,008) also have more Ks than Martinez (970) did at 26. Some older gents, with also higher strikeout totals, also bear watching. Leading off for them is Johan Santana, who will start next season as a 29-year-old with about 1,400 strikeouts. Ben Sheets' 1,032 strikeouts at 28 are impressive because of all his injury down-times -- but that's a trend that also limits his prospects. Arizona's Brandon Webb (852) and the Angels' John Lackey (891) are a couple of other 28-year-olds not really regarded as pure strikeouts pitchers. And, as usual, there are kids in the playpen who hold out the promise of eventually joining the list. The Giants' Tim Lincecum has broken in averaging more than a strikeout an inning, and, at 23, Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir is maintaining that pace for a fourth season. And who knows where a tot like the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain will lead? But there are also always examples that highlight the danger in projections. A.J. Burnett blazed in like the aforementioned sensations yet, after numerous arm injuries, has just reached 1,000 strikeouts -- at 30. So potential seldom meets deliverance. It did with Martinez, who now seduces us with the potential for more.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.