Asked about how he so efficiently dispatched the Braves, who sent four rookies to the plate, Martinez explained that the harder they tried to hit him, the softer he threw. "I saw a bunch of kids hacking and hacking and hacking and hacking," he said. "And I had all three [off-speed] pitches [cutter, curve, changeup] working down in the strike zone. When that happens, it's an easy day at the office. I don't worry about blowing the ball by anybody. I'll take a ground ball on one pitch over a strikeout any day."
Indeed, the move out of the heavy-artillery American League suits Martinez well at this stage of his career. Though on pace to throw 235 innings in the regular season, he's been getting through an average inning easier than at any point in his career (13.8 pitches). The bottom third of the thinner NL lineups essentially gives Martinez two or three low-stress innings in his typical seven-inning start. The 7-8-9 hitters were batting .106 against him in 161 at bats with no home runs, two doubles, one walk and six RBIs.
Martinez's own club typifies the forgiveness of NL lineups. The Mets ranked 24th among the 30 major league teams in batting (.259) and 26th in on-base percentage (.322). They did, however, percolate a bit last week, scoring 48 runs in their seven-game tear with a spark from dynamic if inconsistent leadoff hitter Reyes. The fleet shortstop has an anemic .295 OBP, but thanks to his league-leading 10 triples and 34 stolen bases, he scores almost half the time he does reach base (61 of 130).
The Mets haven't had a winning season since 2001 and have turned over virtually their entire roster since then. Only Piazza and righthander Steve Trachsel, who is recuperating from back surgery, remain among the 44 players who suited up for New York four years ago. To contend for the postseason, which they haven't seen since their 2000 World Series loss to the Yankees, the Mets will need Reyes on base more often, more production from the first base position--with Doug Mientkiewicz getting the bulk of the work, Mets first basemen ranked last in the majors in batting average (.215) and OBP (.295)--and a better second half from centerfielder Beltran, whose first-half anxiousness at the plate typified the break-in period that stars usually require in New York.
Martinez, however, needed no such adjustment. He has been reliable from the moment he struck out 12 batters on Opening Day. He was at his entertaining best on June 2, when he danced through the unexpected sprinkler shower in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks and threw eight dominant innings in which he allowed one run and no walks while striking out nine. "After the game," Peterson says, "I was in the dugout and saw that most of the fans were still there, doing the Pedro point-and-thrust. It was like they didn't want to leave. It was like a concert. I told him, 'You've got a gift. You're not just a great pitcher, but the way people naturally respond to you is special.'"
Of course, Peterson was not thinking of the way New Yorkers--more specifically, Yankees fans--responded to Martinez in his previous seven years with Boston. "There were many nights I would be leaving Yankee Stadium, and the fans would be cursing me and wanting to fight me," Martinez says. "I would think, You're so confused. I'm just a fearless competitor who will always try to do my best. I'm not a fighter. I'm not a bad guy.
"Now I think New York is getting to know me for the first time. And I feel the energy from the fans. It's becoming very noticeable. I don't know what really brings it out, what makes people get so excited when I pitch."
After his win on Saturday, Martinez lingered for 30 minutes giving interviews in equally erudite English and Spanish in the same room where Joe Namath--another populist Shea icon--used to dress. Two female reporters, one speaking each language, hugged and kissed him. Then Martinez, dressed in fashionable blue jeans and an orange polo shirt, walked toward his car through the drab corridor of the old edifice. As he did, a few of the friends, security officers and stadium workers still around reached out to shake his hand or pat his back, as if to touch a healing stone.