Good signs from Martinez in debut

Good signs from Martinez in debut

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Hours before Pedro Martinez threw his first pitch of the exhibition season on Sunday, Billy Wagner provided his perspective on the cosmic significance of what he was going to see, saying, "It doesn't matter if he gets lit up or pitches two scoreless innings," reflecting the approach that veteran pitchers generally take in Spring Training.

Martinez had that mind-set when he faced the Tigers at Tradition Field in the afternoon. He would work on his pitches more than he would work on the Tigers. His objective, essentially unrelated to the outcome of the game -- and, for that matter, to his own pitching line -- was to see where he stood vis-a-vis Opening Day, to determine what parts of his game needed polish. If he handled the Tigers, great -- if he didn't, so what? March counts in college basketball.

When Martinez finally did get to a mound in genuine game conditions, what he produced was something of a hybrid of what Wagner had mentioned -- four scoreless innings to soothe those who believe that games won in the 772 area code carry some weight, and enough work with runners on base to refine his pitches from the stretch.

The secondary, numerical results might not have been what the casual fan would expect from a pitcher of Martinez's stature this close to Opening Day -- four hits and a walk -- but Martinez didn't care about the hits, the walks or the absence of runs. The innings, as well as the obedience and movement of his pitches, gave him his coordinates.

"I'm right where I want to be," was Martinez's general self-assessment, the only assessment that matters.

Martinez clearly had his moments against a reasonable facsimile of what probably will be the most productive batting order in the American League. The Tigers, playing a pair of split-squad games on Sunday, still had Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez filling the first four spots in the batting order. Martinez threw special fastballs to Cabrera and Ramon Santiago, a killer curve to Ordonez and enough quality changeups to buttress his already reinforced confidence.

"I don't know about anybody else," he said, "but I'm happy facing some real hitters and getting [this first appearance] out of the way."

Martinez was to have pitched on March 6, against the Nationals, but the game was rained out. March 11 might have brought him a start, but his aversion to long trips and a scheduled game three hours away in Fort Myers, Fla., made appearances in simulated conditions necessary. He did so on March 7 and March 12.

But Martinez needed to face batters in real conditions -- he knew that -- not only to see how they reacted to his pitches but also to reacquaint himself with game conditions. As it was, he was slow to cover first base on a ground ball hit by Timo Perez in the second inning.

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Even so, "I didn't feel that much of a difference," he said.

A double-play ground ball spared Martinez in the first inning, and his strikeout acumen was at work in the second, when he struck out Santiago looking on a low fastball that followed two four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone and retired Freddy Guzman with the bases loaded, and in the third, when he struck out Guillen and Cabrera with a runner on second.

After retiring the side in order in the fourth, Martinez had a 58-pitch workday and the sense that he had progressed.

"It was the first time I had to execute," he said. "They were patient, and I got myself in trouble. But I got to work out of the stretch then."

Martinez said that the Tigers produced quality at-bats against him and made him work, but that's what he had hoped to do. How much could he gain from facing Nos. 86, 87 and 88 again?

Martinez still has work to do. Stamina isn't achieved with 58 pitches. Starting pitchers typically throw at least 25 innings in exhibition games. In the unlikely event Martinez throws six and seven in his two remaining Spring Training starts, he will reach 17 -- 24 if his simulated innings are included.

But Martinez is the atypical pitcher. There are instances when he can retire three batters on seven pitches if he suspects that the ensuing inning might require 18 or 20. His sense of what is necessary at a particular moment, and his ability to produce it, distinguish him from the vast majority of his peers.

General manager Omar Minaya calls it "pitchability. Sounds like a marketer's word -- drinkability. It means the ability to achieve outs regardless of the hitter's strengths, the umpire's strike zone, what pitches are working that day or velocity, and sometimes almost regardless of the pitcher's own command."

Martinez's command wasn't extraordinary on Sunday -- he said that his curveball misbehaved -- but it was good enough in those instances when he chose to be stingy.

"I was good enough," he said.

His own catcher made an expanded evaluation.

"A different Pedro," Ramon Castro said after catching the first two innings and watching the others. "Location was great, changeup was nasty and his fastball was better than two years ago. ... It has more life. The four-seamer goes up. It didn't do that last year."

Martinez de-emphasizes velocity, and he evidently has convinced others that it is a taboo topic. Minaya declined to say what speeds had registered on the club's radar gun, but scouts said that Martinez had touched 90 mph but pitched in the high 80s.

And Damion Easley, in an unsolicited comment, said, simply, "He threw harder today."

Easley, who had no radar, was impressed, as was one of Martinez's victim's.

"I know Pudge [Rodriguez]," said Castro. "We live in the same place in Puerto Rico. We're friends. He told me, 'Pedro looked good.' He was right."

But as Wagner and Martinez said, "It's still Spring Training."

All things in moderation -- even optimism.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.