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ON BASEBALL

Pitcher took dramatic turn

TORONTO -- Pedro Martinez's present-day value to the Red Sox?

Last night, the going rate was two bits -- or more accurately, two loonies -- the discounted price of an upper-deck ticket in SkyDome, where the hometown Blue Jays were competing not only against Martinez and the Sox but a Game 7 involving the Maple Leafs across the street in Air Canada Centre.

Seldom, if ever, has Martinez labored for such short money, but there could be little debate last night that he was more than worth the price of admission, even as Sox fans back home continue to question whether the 2004 model is deserving of a long-term investment.

In his fourth start of a spring fraught with uncertainty about whether he deserves his weight in John W. Henry's gold, the Sox ace delivered his finest performance, checking the Blue Jays on two runs (one earned) and five hits in seven innings in outdueling Roy Halladay, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, 4-2.

Martinez offered no postgame dissection of his effort -- he issued a statement through the PR staff, saying how much better he felt -- but not to worry. Manny Ramirez, the Sox player who already has a movie named after him ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), more than compensated for Martinez's silence.

"How about Pedro tonight?" said Ramirez, who has suddenly and enthusiastically embraced the role of media go-to guy. "He was great. Pedro doesn't have to throw 95 or 96. He has that great curveball and changeup.

"I think Pedro, he and [Curt] Schilling are going to win more than 15 games this year. I think the Cy Young Award is going to come down to those two guys this year."

Freed in a climate-controlled dome from the adverse weather conditions that have affected him in other starts, and seldom challenged by a Blue Jays team hitting only slightly better than Alex Rodriguez (a league-low .215 team average entering the game), Martinez bore little resemblance to the rattled righthander cuffed around last Thursday in Fenway Park by the Baltimore Orioles.

The fuel-injected fastball remains a relic of the past -- Martinez touched 92 m.p.h. with a couple of pitches and was mostly in the 88-89 range -- but he made his most persuasive case yet that he can thrive without it. He may have an Aston Martin in his driveway, but on the mound last night, it was all Toyota Prius, Martinez dispatching the overanxious Jays with an economy of efficiency.

"I thought he was outstanding," manager Terry Francona said. "He worked so quick tonight. He got the ball, he got on the mound, threw strikes with all his pitches, and hit his spots with all his pitches.

"I thought in fastball counts he challenged people and they didn't take it. He got the ball by them a lot of times. To me, his fastball tonight had pop on it. Plus his breaking ball from the git-go, he had a comfort zone with it."

Through five innings, Martinez had thrown just 59 pitches. He did not go to a three-ball count until the sixth, when Reed Johnson became the first Blue Jay to reach third when he tripled over Johnny Damon's head with one out. Until then, only Carlos Delgado (double and single) had reached base against Martinez, whose command of the strike zone was unwavering all night, in marked contrast to the impostor in the No. 45 uniform last week.

"His struggles with his command last week was one of the very few times I've ever seen that," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "How many times have you seen Pedro Martinez walk a guy on four pitches? Not many. Hopefully, it's just one of those freaky things."

Only some sloppy outfield play in the seventh shortened Martinez's night. Josh Phelps's liner took a turf bounce over Damon's head for a triple, and Gabe Kapler, a day after a historic case of amnesia (forgetting the number of outs on successive plays), made a needless, wild throw home on Kevin Cash's sacrifice fly, allowing Eric Hinske to move into scoring position, from where he scored on Orlando Hudson's single.

Had Francona been lacking in confidence in Martinez, that would have been the ideal time for him to pop out of the dugout. But Francona, displaying as much faith in Martinez as he did in the gaggle of players he permitted to stay in Boston an extra night to watch the Bruins, stayed with his ace. Martinez walked pinch hitter Greg Myers to put the tying run on base, but retired Johnson on a fly to right to end the threat, and drop the curtain on his night.

Toronto manager Carlos Tosca had taken note before the game of the difference he'd seen in Martinez this spring.

"He doesn't appear to be throwing as hard," Tosca said. "His arm angle seems to be lower than I've seen him in the past. He's pitching around 88, 89; I've seen him 93, 94, with his arm angle a little higher.

"Obviously, something has gone on to make him think that's what's best for him. Whether it bothers him to go lower, I don't know. Usually when a guy goes lower, it makes him feel better when he turns the ball loose."

Tosca warned, however, that Martinez did not need to leave a vapor trail to be successful.

"One thing about Pedro's changeup, he has such great arm speed, it's going to be tough to recognize, even if he's throwing 85," Tosca said. "The other thing about Pedro is he's a great pitcher. He knows how to pitch, he knows what he wants to do out there, and how to attack each hitter. He's always had that, even when he was carrying more velocity."

Wallace had pledged to reserve judgment on Martinez until he'd seen him make a few more starts.

"I have some private feelings on it," he said. "But he says he feels good, and that's all you can go by."

But Wallace, too, noted that Martinez's fastball in altered forms still could make him very tough to hit.

"He runs it, cuts it, sinks it, he can do a lot of things with the ball, just like the [Greg] Madduxes of the world," Wallace said. "Those guys are special. They can do that. A lot of guys can't, losing that kind of stuff, but he can do it."

But first, Wallace said, he had to believe he can do that.

"How long does it take to make that adjustment?" Wallace asked. "You have to convince yourself before you convince everybody else. I don't know if that's happened."

Last night may have been a big step in that direction.

"He didn't have to prove [anything] to me," Francona said. "I'm in his corner. He's a great pitcher. We just give him the ball, keep giving him the ball, and he's going to do good."

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