Pedro Martinez’s Greatest Game
Most pitchers on the mound work from two positions, the windup and the stretch. The windup is a slower and fuller motion used when the bases are empty, allowing pitchers the luxury of a higher leg kick to uncork all of their energy—physical and mental—toward the plate. When runners are on base, pitchers sacrifice power and precision in favor of a faster delivery from the stretch, in order to prevent a steal. In most games, pitchers routinely go back and forth.
After hitting Knoblauch with his second pitch, Martinez settled into the stretch, where he remained for his first two fastballs to Jeter. Once Knoblauch was thrown out trying to steal, Martinez returned to the windup. Incredibly, he remained there for the rest of the night. “He threw two pitches from the stretch,” marveled then–Red Sox infielder John Valentin, who watched the game from the bench. “Two.”
Suddenly down a run and matched against Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte, an All-Star, Martinez knew he needed to be perfect the rest of the way for any chance at the win. Like all of the greats, he seemed to use the setback to his advantage to find that elusive sixth gear. Martinez struck out overmatched youngster Ricky Ledee to end the second, and then whiffed both third baseman Scott Brosius and catcher Joe Girardi to start the third. By now, fans from Martinez’s native Dominican Republic had begun hanging “K” cards on the bleacher wall to mark each of his strikeouts. A mere eight outs into the game and they were already up to five.
Determined to keep his team in the game, Martinez faced the heart of the Yankees lineup—Jeter, O’Neill, and Williams—in the bottom of the fourth. Though it was the only inning Martinez did not register a strikeout, it was a victory to retire the side on a fly ball and two groundouts, using only 10 pitches and bringing his count for the game to an efficient total of 50. For a strikeout pitcher like Martinez, the goal was 15 pitches per inning, allowing him to last eight innings depending on how well he was performing. That night against New York, nearly halfway through the game, he was averaging a mere 12.5 pitches per inning. “I always tried to be a positive person with my players,” Torre told me. “And with Pedro, the only way I could be positive was to tell ’em, ‘We’re not trying to beat him, we’re trying to stay close.’ We were a very potent ball club. In games Pedro would pitch, we wanted to get his pitch count up and let him get himself out of the game because we felt like we could beat the people after him.”
By the time Davis came up again in the fifth—his first at-bat following the homer—Martinez was done making mistakes. He worked Davis carefully this time, shaking off Varitek’s calls as Davis stepped out of the batter’s box. Davis took a called strike three on a banana-bending changeup that nipped the outside corner. One batter later, Martinez had struck out the side. It served as a template for how he would work the Yankees throughout the night, moving them on and off the plate as if he were a puppeteer. “I always felt like Pedro got through the lineup the first time through with just his fastball,” O’Neill said recently by phone. “After that, it was impossible.”
Finally, in the top of the sixth, the sputtering Red Sox lineup showed signs of life. First, Nomar Garciaparra drew a leadoff walk. Then Stanley, who’d already singled and doubled, stepped to the plate. He didn’t need extra motivation, but he had some anyway. “I really always wanted to do well against New York,” Stanley admitted to me this spring. He’d been a catcher for the Yankees in the early 1990s, and had proven especially valuable because of his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. That made him a constant home-run threat at Yankee Stadium, thanks to the short porch in right field.
Patiently, Stanley worked the pitcher to a 3–2 count when, sure enough, Pettitte left a fastball out over the plate that Stanley punched over the right-field wall for a two-run homer. The blast gave Martinez his first lead of the night, and as Stanley circled the bases, television cameras caught Martinez sitting in the Boston dugout, smiling as slyly as the Mona Lisa.
Baseball is rife with clichés, and Torre cited one of the more long-standing: Against the very best pitchers, you’d better get to them early. Now, with the lead in the bottom of the seventh, Martinez began to settle into a rhythm, and his ability to mix pitches had the Yankees guessing wrong. When Jeter looked in, Martinez went out. When O’Neill anticipated a fastball, he got a curve. And when Williams came to bat, he became Martinez’s third strikeout victim of the inning and 12th in the game, clownishly swinging and failing to make contact.
“It was pure dominance,” Torre says. “That quality start, six-inning stuff? That didn’t go for Pedro. Guys like [him], when you get to the seventh, eighth, and ninth, they’re stronger. I saw it with [Bob] Gibson. Guys like that tend to smell the finish line.”
Oh, and Pedro smelled it all right.
Staked to the lead, Martinez struck out eight of the final nine Yankees that night in a dizzying display of pitching power and artistry. In the final three innings, only Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez put the ball in play—Pedro jammed him with a fastball to force a weak, foul pop-up to Stanley at first. He threw 30 of his final 42 pitches for strikes, including 19 fastballs, 12 curves, and 11 changeups. In the eighth inning, Yankees broadcasters Bobby Murcer and Tim McCarver remarked how the potent Yankees lineup—dominant against right-handed pitchers like Martinez—had rarely struck out during the 1999 season. By the end, Martinez had recorded a personal-best 17 strikeouts in a single game. “This is as good as it gets,” Martinez said after the game. “I won’t lie.”
Then, in the bottom of the ninth, a miracle happened. As pinch hitter Darryl Strawberry came to bat with one out, Yankees fans— acknowledging the magician on the mound who was manhandling their team—offered up a response that to this day still seems unreal: applause. New Yorkers stood. And cheered. Much to the confusion of broadcasters McCarver and Murcer, who initially thought they were rooting for Strawberry, Yankees die-hards gave Martinez their hearts for a breathtaking moment. “I always felt that both sides in Boston and New York, even with the rivalry and all that, you really respected something special,” Torre says. “And that [game] certainly fit that category.”
Martinez had yet to become a true enemy in the eyes of New Yorkers, had yet to inspire merciless taunts from every corner of Manhattan, and had yet to draw the mocking chants of “Who’s…your…dad-dy!” during the seventh and final game of the 2004 American League Championship Series, Martinez’s final appearance in New York as a member of the Red Sox. This was simply Pedro at his finest, reserving his place in the Hall of Fame—where he will be inducted on July 26—by systematically carving his way through the vaunted Yankees lineup like an industrial buzz saw. “Even the Yankees fans came around and gave me an ovation,” Martinez says. “That’s when I realized I did something special. To see all the fans stand up and give me an ovation like that…you don’t really see that with the Red Sox and the Yankees.”
Not until then.
And not since.