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He still belongs on big stage

Pedro Martinez points skyward while walking off the mound in the seventh inning after another solid postseason outing. Pedro Martinez points skyward while walking off the mound in the seventh inning after another solid postseason outing. (Mike Segar/Reuters
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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 30, 2009

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NEW YORK - He lost the game, but won the debate.

Can Pedro Martinez, 38, still pitch meaningful games at a high level? The answer was yes.

He pitched into the seventh inning last night in Game 2 of the World Series and left trailing, 2-1, after allowing solo homers to Mark Teixeira and Hideki Matsui. Though the Phillies lost, 3-1, stifled by an excellent performance by A.J. Burnett, to even the series at 1-1, Martinez, with his new pitching style, proved he still belonged on the biggest stage.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel can’t get it right with Martinez, taking him out too early in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers and leaving him in too long last night. Martinez had 1-0 lead over the Dodgers through seven and had thrown 87 pitches when Manuel felt he was done. The Phillies lost the game. Last night, it was after six innings, with Martinez having thrown 99 pitches, and Manuel asked Martinez how he felt between innings. Martinez told his manager he felt fine. He came out for the seventh, and shouldn’t have.

Regardless of the outcome, Martinez (six innings, three runs, eight strikeouts) was fun to watch. He continues to show that his career may not be over yet.

I asked Martinez after Game 2 of the NLCS whether he would retire if the Phillies win the championship. He said if they don’t, he will confer with his mother and ask her approval to continue on, perhaps not in a full-time role, but in a more significant one than he had this season.

Based on the way he showed up in August and helped the Phillies win some significant games down the stretch, why would he call it a career?

Martinez spent months rehabbing from major shoulder surgery. He has reinvented himself as a masterful, crafty pitcher after the golden years in which he combined power and guile to become perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation.

“Regardless of whether I won or lost, I am extremely proud that I was able to compete against a real good, solid team and put our team in position to win,’’ said Martinez, who indicated he has been under the weather the last two days. “At the same time, I know I made the right decision coming back. It was a real baseball game out there tonight.’’

The Phillies say they have not made any decisions on Martinez regarding next season. It would appear that he would like to return with them, or at least stay in the National League, which is far less taxing on a pitcher.

In the first inning, he went to 3-and-2 on Derek Jeter and struck him out on an 88-mile-per-hour fastball. He threw former teammate Johnny Damon three straight changeups and struck him out. He fooled Teixeira and got him to pop out on a 90-mile-an-hour fastball.

In the second, he got Alex Rodriguez on a called third strike on a 2-and-2 breaking pitch, but Matsui singled to right, waiting on a curveball. After Robinson Cano flied to left on a great extended catch by Raul Ibanez, Jerry Hairston ended the inning by flying out.

Martinez was staked to a 1-0 lead in the second inning against Burnett when Rodriguez failed to field a hard-hit grounder by Matt Stairs. That scored Ibanez, who had reached on a two-out ground-rule double.

But Martinez surrendered his first run in the fourth on a homer by Teixeira, who hit a changeup that hung up in the strike zone. Matsui’s homer in the sixth came on a curveball nearly in the dirt, which Matsui lofted into the right-field bleachers after Martinez had struck out Teixeira and Rodriguez to begin the inning.

“I made a couple of mistakes and they took advantage of them,’’ Martinez said. “I think I made a good pitch to Teixeira, but the pitch to Matsui I disapprove of. It’s a pitch I would not have chosen if I had a chance to make the decision again.’’

It was intriguing to watch Martinez’s pitch selection and location, how he masterfully kept Yankee hitters off-balance. His fastball got as high as 92 early, but he didn’t seem to need it. The 88-90 stuff seemed to suffice, given the discrepancy between his fastball and changeup, which he was throwing at about 73, and a curveball that was even slower.

In the third inning, Martinez hurried his delivery and threw a fastball right down the middle that froze Jeter for a called strike three. That was pure trickery.

When he came off the field in the seventh, with the crowd chanting, “Who’s Your Daddy?’’ Martinez just smiled. He had to say something to a man in the stands who was holding his daughter in one arm and a beer in another, who, according to Martinez, was saying all kinds of nasty things.

“I said, ‘You have your little girl. I’m a father. I have a little girl. You have to be ashamed. How can you be so dumb?’ ’’ Martinez recalled.

This is a kinder, gentler Pedro. But one who by no means is done.

The days of lying under the mango tree are not far off for Martinez. It has been amazing to watch his Hall of Fame career. The way he was, and even now, the way he is.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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