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Turning up the heat

Irked by skeptics, Martinez fired up for season opener

BALTIMORE -- Opening Night, and Pedro Martinez is prickly, peeved, petulant, pouting, and feeling persecuted. And that's even before he gets his first look at what promises to be a cold, miserable evening tonight in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the Red Sox are scheduled to open the 2004 season against the Orioles.

Martinez's agitated state may be the most encouraging indication yet that the 32-year-old Dominican, unsigned beyond this season and beset by questions about his mediocre showing this spring, is ready to reclaim his status as ace of the Sox staff, even though Curt Schilling is now around to tug at Superman's cape.

The last time Martinez was this annoyed so early in the year was last April, when he was smacked around by the Orioles in the Sox home opener for nine hits and 10 earned runs in 4 1/3 innings, the worst start of his career, and for months afterward burned at the memory of the lout who stood up behind the Sox dugout and loudly disapproved of Martinez's effort as he trundled off the mound.

Only he knows what effect that affront had on his subsequent performances, if any, though Martinez has a history of seizing upon the slightest pretext to see red when it suits him. He would lose only once more until August, en route to a season in which he went 14-4 and led the American League in ERA (2.22), came within one whiff of the league lead in strikeouts, and would have been within reach of 20 wins if the bullpen hadn't blown five starts in which he left with a lead.

Martinez didn't appreciate people doubting him then, and he's obviously not enamored with the kind of speculation that reached a crescendo last week in Dunedin, Fla., when he was cuffed around by the Blue Jays, giving up six runs and back-to-back home runs, including a grand slam, in the first inning alone. A recurring theme this spring has been the alleged absence of life on Martinez's fastball, which maxed out in the 91-mile-per-hour range, according to the scouts who gather behind home plate with their radar guns.

Even before the debacle in Dunedin, Martinez already had ceased sharing his thoughts with the camera-and-notebook set, having decided that he would suffer those he considers fools in silence, a course of action he adopted for long stretches last summer.

But when he was still talking, he pointedly objected to those wondering what had become of his fastball.

"Ninety, 91, that's a good fastball," he said, his smile masking his irritation. "If anyone wants to test it, let them stand in there with a bat, and I'll hit them at 91. Isn't that a good test?"

By the next day, whatever tolerance Martinez had for his doubters had evaporated. Privately, he expressed extreme annoyance at the hostile line of questioning, and told two TV reporters who had their cameras turned off that he was fed up, and that when October comes, he planned to leave Boston as a free agent. The Red Sox already had the man they wanted, he said, in Schilling.

People say all manner of things in anger, of course, and remember that Martinez, after accompanying agent Fernando Cuza to a negotiating session with Sox ownership only days earlier, had pronounced himself "happy" with the way talks had gone. But it should not go unheeded that a year ago at this time, Martinez had insisted that his $17.5 million contract option be picked up before the start of the season, or otherwise he would be gone as soon as free agency became an option. Now he's a year closer to free agency, there's no new deal in place, and George Steinbrenner is practically panting at a chance to humiliate the Sox worse than he did when he closed a deal that the Sox couldn't for Alex Rodriguez.

"I try not to read anything in the papers," Martinez said while he was still talking, "in case they're going to say something negative."

Martinez came to training camp saying he wasn't drawing any lines in the sand this time. He also said he recognized that if he wanted to stay, he would have to do so for less money, the market having all but dried up of teams willing to spend more than $17.5 mil for a pitcher, especially one with a right shoulder that has endured major wear and is one traumatic episode away from a potentially career-ending tear.

But Martinez has been hearing predictions that his shoulder would give out for more than two seasons, ever since he had to shut down for most of the summer of '01 after an MRI showed a damaged labrum, and has remained by acclamation the league's best pitcher. The 95-m.p.h. fastball that was a staple of his greatest seasons -- 1999 and 2000, which match up well with the best years any pitcher has ever had -- now makes just an occasional appearance. Going beyond 100 to 110 pitches a start is no longer an option, and he is given extra rest whenever possible, to extend the life of that shoulder as long as possible.

Yet, with a repertoire that still includes the game's most deceptive changeup and a back-buckling curveball, Martinez dismisses the talk about his fastball as nonsense. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein is inclined to agree. Yesterday, he told a radio audience back in Boston that he watched Martinez's recent side session, and his fastball was outstanding.

Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace, who wasn't here during spring training a year ago, said that he has nothing with which he can compare Martinez's March. "He says he feels good," Wallace said. "He says he feels strong. He's throwing OK, just not consistent. But the ball is coming out of his hand good.

"I can tell you, if certain guys had to make a team in spring training, they wouldn't do it. Whether it's a mental thing or physical thing, I don't know. But with Pedro, the ball is coming out of his hand real well."

Privately, Sox officials have expressed some concerns. They also are faced with the tricky calculus of how to craft an offer for Martinez that factors in the possibility that he may break down.

But from where he stands, Martinez sees one thing as self-evident. Judge him on spring training? Might as well do the same with Randy Johnson, the five-time Cy Young Award winner, who gave up eight runs on eight hits in his last start. Or Josh Beckett, the World Series MVP who takes a 1-3 record and 5.34 ERA into the regular season. Or Oakland's gifted lefty, Mark Mulder, who gave up seven runs in his final spring tuneup.

It's practice, people. Tonight, for Martinez, it begins for real.

"I'm still the ace," he reminded folks. "I'm a proud man. If I ever feel I can't compete . . . I'll pack up my cleats and go home."

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