The strike zone is little; people are big," Expos righthander Pedro Martinez once said, explaining why he had hit so many batters early in his big league career that he was dubbed Señor Plunk. This season, whenever Martinez is on the mound, the strike zone is roughly the size of Quebec and it's the batters who feel very small.
After beating the Dodgers 7-4 on Sunday, Martinez's numbers were Gibsonian. Seven wins in seven starts. A league-leading 1.20 ERA (seven earned runs in 52⅓ innings). A microscopic .183 opponents' batting average. Fifty-six strikeouts and just 11 walks. It was the best start in the majors since Frank Viola won his first seven starts with a 0.87 ERA for the Mets in '90.
It is also noteworthy that Martinez was not among the league leaders in hit batsmen last season. Gone are those wild and crazy days of 1994 and '95 when Martinez was acquiring a reputation as a headhunter by hitting a total of 22 batters in two seasons, leading to three bench-clearing brawls and 12 player ejections in '94 alone. His pitches hit only three batters last season, though when the Phillies' Mike Williams threw at him twice on Sept. 24 in retaliation for hitting Gregg Jefferies, Martinez charged the mound and was suspended for eight games, including Montreal's first seven this year. At week's end he had plunked three batters this season. "Two years ago Pedro was a dangerous pitcher, a guy who threw at hitters above the belt and could break a guy's hand or, worse, his chin," says Giants second baseman Jeff Kent. "Now his control is better, and hitters have to respect his right to pitch inside because he has proved himself."
Martinez hasn't altered his aggressive approach, but he has fine-tuned his aim. "Pedro still pitches inside like he always did, but in the past he would lose his temper sometimes and overthrow, and that's when he hit people," says Martinez's older brother, Ramon, a two-time All-Star pitcher for the Dodgers. "I've told him to try to stay calm when things go badly. I think he listened, but it's hard to be sure, because he hasn't been in trouble much this season."
After serving his suspension this year, Martinez made his first start on April 15. He wasn't exactly rusty, giving up just three hits and striking out five in a 7-5 defeat of the Astros. In that game Martinez began a string of 28⅓ innings without allowing an earned run, and he didn't yield more than two earned runs in his 13 starts between last Aug. 24 and May 13. "It's reaching the point where if Pedro gives up two or three runs in a game, people ask, 'What went wrong?' " Expos catcher Darrin Fletcher says. "He's been so tough that the same veteran hitters who used to try to intimidate him are now intimidated by him."
Coming into this season, his fifth in the majors, Martinez was only 25 and had already produced a 48-31 record, for a .608 winning percentage. As a point of comparison, the Braves' Greg Maddux was 61-53 (.535) at that age. And Martinez believes that he is still improving with every start. "There is no secret formula for my success, except that I am getting older and more experienced," says Martinez. "The path of my career is just like raising a kid: You teach him and teach him, and then one day he becomes a man."
After an 8-7 defeat of the Mariners on Sunday, the Orioles were almost halfway through a stretch of their schedule during which they play 16 games in seven cities—Oakland (two), Anaheim (two), Seattle (three), Baltimore (two), Cleveland (three), New York (two) and Detroit (two)—in only 18 days. The Tigers are already dreading a July road swing that features four games in New York, then two in Boston, two in Anaheim and three in Texas without a day off. The Giants were scheduled to take six more plane trips than they took a year ago. "This year's schedule is a disaster," says Philadelphia pitcher Curt Schilling. "You get into a city at 2 a.m., play that night, play the next day and you're gone. We just had eight flights in 18 days. It's tough for guys to get their bearings when you travel like that."
The convoluted '97 schedule is one of the by-products of the introduction of interleague play. Seattle has 28 two-game series scheduled this season, up from just seven a year ago. West Division teams such as the Mariners suffer most under the new system, because those teams chose to play eight two-game series against their counterparts in the other league. Teams in the East and Central Divisions, each of which has five members, play five three-game interleague sets.
Not only does the two-game series produce exhausting travel, but it could also alter the game's competitive balance. "I don't like the two-game series because there may be seasons when you only face another team's Number 1 and Number 2 starters, while you have to go with your Number 4 and 5," says Reds general manager Jim Bowden.