Monday, February 20, 2012

One Season Wonders: Pedro Martinez

In 2004, the Mets finished below .500 for the third consecutive season.  Attendance at Shea Stadium, which had averaged 2.7 million from 1999-2002, had plummeted to an average of 2.2 million in 2003 and 2004.  With the Yankees winning six American League pennants and four World Series championships in less than a decade, baseball fans in New York were not exactly lining up to buy tickets to see the Mets.

The Mets needed to make a change for the better and they needed to do it fast if they wanted to remain relevant in their own city.  To effect this change, Mets' owner Fred Wilpon gave full autonomy to new general manager Omar Minaya.  It was up to the Queens-raised Minaya to turn the Mets into kings of the National League East.  Realizing he had just gotten the keys to the castle, Minaya wasted no time in his efforts to make the Mets matter again.

First, he hired Willie Randolph to take over for the dismissed Art Howe.  Then came the hard part.  In Randolph, the Mets had a leader in the dugout.  But they needed a leader on the field.  Jose Reyes and David Wright were still soiling their baseball diapers at the time, so they were not viable candidates.  Instead, Omar Minaya set his sights on one player.  He was looking for a respected veteran presence on the team who could also serve as their Pied Piper, leading other talent out of their cities and into Shea Stadium.

Just before the Winter Meetings, Minaya boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic, spending his Thanksgiving in Santo Domingo.  Soon after, Mets fans were the ones giving thanks.

With Pedro Martinez on board, the Mets were hoping to hitch a ride to first place.

Less than three weeks after spending his Thanksgiving in the Dominican Republic, Omar Minaya gave Mets fans an early Christmas gift, signing Pedro Martinez to a four-year, $53 million deal.  Martinez, who had just led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years, would immediately give the Mets credibility, as well as a reason for other free agents to come to New York.

Martinez spent seven years in Boston, dominating opposing batters in a way not seen since the days of Sandy Koufax.  From 1998-2004, Martinez went 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA.  He also averaged 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, leading the league in whiffs in four of his seven seasons with the Red Sox.  Despite his dominance, the Red Sox did not want to guarantee a fourth year to Pedro due to his injury history.  The Mets were not as timid.

With a bonafide ace to lead the pitching staff, the Mets expected the 2005 season to be different than their previous three campaigns.  But things didn't start off so well for Martinez in his first Opening Day assignment for the Mets, as Cincinnati's Adam Dunn hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning to give the Reds the early lead.  Dunn's blast might have rattled an ordinary pitcher, but Pedro Martinez was no ordinary pitcher.  In fact, after the home run, the Mets got a taste of vintage Pedro, and what a fine vintage it was.

Martinez struck out nine of the next ten batters he faced, with only a third-inning walk to D'Angelo Jimenez on a 3-2 pitch preventing Pedro from tying Tom Seaver's major league record of ten consecutive strikeouts in one game.  But each strikeout made Martinez's pitch count rise near the triple digit mark.  By the end of the sixth inning, Martinez had fanned a dozen Cincinnati Reds, but had reached 103 pitches.  However, the Mets scored three runs in the seventh inning to take a 6-3 lead on the strength of Carlos Beltran's RBI single off former Met David Weathers (who was pitching in relief of another former Met, Paul Wilson) and Cliff Floyd's two-run homer off Kent Mercker.

With the Mets enjoying a three-run lead at the seventh inning stretch, manager Willie Randolph removed Pedro Martinez from the game, fully expecting his ace to come away with the victory.  But second-year closer Braden Looper blew the save in the ninth inning, allowing back-to-back homers to Adam Dunn and Joe Randa, with the latter blast coming in walk-off fashion.

Braden Looper had nowhere to hide after costing Pedro Martinez his first win as a Met.

Pedro Martinez was credited with a no-decision in his Opening Day start, a common occurrence throughout his first month and a half as a Met.  Over his first nine starts in 2005, Martinez was credited with four no-decisions, despite not allowing more than five hits in any of them.  Through May 22, Martinez was holding opposing hitters to a microscopic .155 batting average, but only had four wins to show for it.  That all changed in Pedro's next start.

On May 27, the Mets were once again hitting the snooze button instead of the baseball.  Brian Moehler started for the Florida Marlins against Pedro and the Mets that day.  This is the same Brian Moehler who was pitching for his fourth team in four years and had only won three games in the major leagues during his time as a baseball nomad.  Yet despite his recent lack of success, Moehler retired the first 11 batters he faced before allowing back-to-back doubles to Mike Cameron and Cliff Floyd.  Moehler then proceeded to retire 13 of the next 15 batters after the Mets had taken their 1-0 lead.  Faced with the daunting task of having to put up zeroes against the Marlins, Martinez accepted the challenge and put his teammates on his back, pitching eight shutout innings while striking out ten and walking no one.  This time, Braden Looper held the lead for Pedro and the Mets came away with a 1-0 victory.

Pedro's performance against the Marlins began a stretch in which he earned eight victories in 11 starts.  From May 27 to July 23, Martinez went 8-2 with a 2.51 ERA, striking out 74 batters and walking only 14.  During this two-month period, Martinez was selected for the National League All-Star team.  However, he did not play in the Midsummer Classic because he had pitched seven strong innings for the Mets in the last game before the break, a 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

After July 23, the combination of poor relief work and a sputtering offense contributed to another stretch where wins were scarce for Pedro Martinez.  In an eight-start stretch from late July to early September, Martinez held opposing batters to a .226 batting average and .283 on-base percentage.  He also allowed three runs or less in six of the eight starts, but was the winning pitcher in only one of those starts.  During that eight-start period, one game stood out in particular.  It was a game in which Pedro was on teetering on the edge of Mets' immortality, only to fall off with one swing of the bat.

On August 14, the Mets were playing the Dodgers in the rubber game of a three-game series.  Only three days earlier, Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron were involved in a horrific outfield collision at Petco Park, ending Cameron's season and taking Beltran out of action for a week.  As a result, Gerald Williams was starting for Beltran in center field for Pedro's start at Dodger Stadium.  This would come into play late in the game.

The Mets broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning on an RBI double by Williams.  Meanwhile, Pedro Martinez was nearly perfect, allowing a first-inning walk to Milton Bradley before retiring the next 20 batters to face him.  Up came Antonio Perez, who had amassed 97 career hits in three major league seasons prior to his eighth inning at-bat against Pedro.  Three pitches later, that total had gone up to 98.

On a 1-1 count, Perez drilled a triple to deep center.  It was the first hit for the Dodgers and the only hit Perez would ever record off Martinez.  The ball might have been catchable, but with Gerald Williams playing center instead of Carlos Beltran, it became an easy triple for Perez.  Interestingly enough, almost five years to the day before Williams failed to catch Perez's fly ball, he was involved in an on-field altercation with Pedro Martinez.

Did Gerald Williams remember this moment when he was "chasing" after Antonio Perez's fly ball?

Martinez, then with the Red Sox, hit Gerald Williams with a pitch in the first inning, causing him to charge the mound.  Williams and several of his Devil Ray teammates were ejected from the game, a game in which Pedro threw (you guessed it) a one-hit shutout.  Five years later, Gerald Williams was once again instrumental in a Pedro Martinez-pitched game that had become a one-hit shutout.  Unfortunately, the game would not end that way.  One batter after the no-hitter was gone, the shutout and the lead were also no more, as Jayson Werth (yes, THAT Jayson Werth) hit a two-run homer off Martinez to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead.  The Mets, despite outhitting the Dodgers, 10-2, lost the game and the series, with Pedro Martinez picking up the hard-luck loss.

After the disappointing loss to the Dodgers, Martinez did not give up a run in each of his next two starts.  But just like in his Opening Day start, the bullpen failed to help Pedro get a win.  On August 20, Martinez left his start against the Washington Nationals with a seemingly insurmountable 8-0 lead.  But the bullpen coughed up the lead, allowing the Nats to tie the game at 8.  The Mets eventually won the game in extra innings, but Pedro once again failed to get a win.  He did get the win in his next start, throwing six shutout innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  But in his final August start, Martinez had one of his few poor performances of the 2005 season.

On August 31, Pedro Martinez took the hill against the Phillies with a chance to pitch the Mets into the wild card lead.  Just one night before, the Mets had pulled to within half a game of the wild card on a late home run by Ramon Castro.  But with the Mets holding on to a slim 2-1 lead in the fifth inning, it wasn't the bullpen that cost Pedro the win.  It was Pedro himself, as the Phillies took the right-hander deep four times en route to an 8-2 victory at Shea Stadium.

Although the Mets failed to make a run at the wild card in September, Pedro Martinez continued to chug along.  After allowing four home runs to the Phillies in his final August start, Martinez did not allow a single home run in the month of September, recording a 2.25 ERA during the season's final month, a month that featured a complete-game, ten-strikeout gem against the division champion Braves on September 16 for his 15th and final win of the season.

Pedro Martinez helped bring other winners to New York, but had difficulty getting wins of his own.

The Mets finished the 2005 season with an 83-79 record, a 12-win improvement over their 2004 campaign.  Pedro Martinez's first year in New York was an overwhelming success, as the right-hander went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA and 208 strikeouts.  The following year, Pedro started the season by winning each of his first five starts, giving fans hope that the best was yet to come.  Although the Mets had a memorable season in 2006, this time Pedro Martinez had very little to do with it.  In fact, he had very little to do with anything over the final three years of his four-year deal.

Following his 5-0 start to the 2006 season, Martinez won a total of 12 games for the Mets until his contract expired following the 2008 campaign.  This was mostly due to the ever-present injury bug; the same bug that scared Boston away from offering him a fourth year.  Because of this bug, Pedro was not able to pitch for the Mets in the 2006 playoffs, as well as most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.  His 12-15 record and 5.00 ERA following the first month of the 2006 season was hardly what the Mets expected from the former Cy Young Award winner, and certainly not worthy of the tens of millions of dollars he was being paid by the team.  Upon the completion of the 2008 season, Martinez was not re-signed by the Mets and did not pitch again in the major leagues until the second half of the 2009 season, when the Phillies took a chance on him.  Naturally, Pedro went 5-1 for the defending World Series champions and helped them win a second consecutive National League pennant.

Pedro Martinez came to the Mets in 2005 with a big contract and a history of success in the major leagues.  In his first year in New York, he helped the Mets end a streak of three consecutive losing seasons, giving them hope that better days were still to come.  Although the Mets did win the division title in 2006 and narrowly missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, their success was due more to the players that followed Pedro to New York and not Pedro himself.

In 2005, the Mets paid Pedro Martinez $53 million to be a four-year wonder.  Instead, they got a one-year wonder and a total of 17 wins over the remaining three years.  Pedro was supposed to lead the Mets to a World Series title.  Instead, his former team accomplished the feat during the third year of his contract with the Mets.  With most one-season wonders, the Mets would be very happy with what they got.  Unfortunately, with Pedro Martinez, the Mets felt like they were short-changed.  There's nothing wonderful about that.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan

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