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Sox Take Minnesota As Pedro Dominates

By Vivek Rao

STAFF COLUMNIST

Forgive Fenway Park faithful for giving Pedro Martinez a standing ovation following the seventh inning of the Boston Red Sox 9-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins this past Saturday. After all, in years past, the Red Sox ace would no doubt have spent the final two innings of the rout pampering his fragile yet divinely talented right arm in the dugout or clubhouse following another spectacular yet incomplete outing.

New Martinez untouchable

This year, however, Martinez is carrying an exuberance and sturdiness not seen in these parts since his first and second seasons in Boston. While he is without a doubt the most skilled and talented pitcher in Major League Baseball, he has been plagued by injury concerns for several seasons. Reports surfaced this spring of a fitter and stronger Martinez who was ready to reestablish himself as the best hurler in the game, and early returns suggest nothing to the contrary.

Witness Saturday’s game, when Martinez resurfaced from the dugout to the crowd’s surprise, not once, but twice, completing a nine-inning, one-run, twelve-strikeout masterpiece against one of the better teams in the American League. He has now given up one earned run or less in five of his seven starts, compiling a 3-1 record alongside a 2.55 ERA. Pedro 2003 is beginning to look a lot like Pedro 1999, and that is promising news for the Red Sox, as they attempt to finally derail the New York Yankees’ lengthy reign over the AL East division.

12-man strikeout run helpful

A pivotal moment in Martinez’ latest gem came in the fourth inning. Spotted an early 1-0 lead following a Trot Nixon sacrifice fly, Martinez had breezed through the first three innings, striking out five along the way before facing his first test of the afternoon. The speedy Cristian Guzman doubled down the right field line and scored on a Corey Koskie single, knotting the game at one, and perhaps more importantly, giving the Twins a much needed psychological boost.

Martinez, however, handled the situation with his unrivaled poise, proceeding to retire the next twelve men he faced. Along the way he outclassed and outmatched Minnesota’s anonymous yet talented batting lineup, especially young stars Jacque Jones and Torii Hunter. With command of all four of his primary pitches, he was able to get ahead of hitters before going after them with some downright nasty out pitches. Of the 108 pitches he threw, an impressive 77 were strikes, and this efficiency allowed him to pitch his first complete game of the year.

Seven-run inning clinches lead

By the time the Twins had another runner aboard -- with one out in the eighth -- the Red Sox offense had given Martinez the run support he so often lacks. Minnesota starter Rick Reed, whom many feel should be replaced in the starting rotation by young phenom Johan Santana, pitched impressively, but was forced to leave in the fourth with a lower back strain. Soon after, Boston blew the game open with a seven-run sixth.

Sox first baseman David Ortiz, playing in his first series against his former team, led off the inning with a walk off reliever Joey Fiore, and Kevin Millar and Trot Nixon followed with singles. Then the floodgates opened, aided immensely by a pair of errors, one by second baseman Luis Rivas and the other by Koskie. Nixon, Jason Varitek, and Johnny Damon drove in runs before Ortiz stepped up to the plate again, this time with the bases loaded. It was the first time all season the hefty slugger had batted with the sacks full, and he responded with a bases-clearing double that put the score at 9-1. When the dust had cleared and the Twins had finally picked up three outs, the damage was done. The Red Sox had put up their most productive inning of the young season, the seven runs trumping the six they scored in the seventh inning during the previous night’s loss. Out of those seven runs, five were unearned.

Sox led by Martinez

For a team to defeat Martinez, it must play fundamentally sound baseball, and Minnesota’s sixth inning collapse spelled its doom. Though unaccustomed to big leads thanks to generally paltry run support, Martinez no doubt felt as comfortable as he has all season. He knifed through the final three innings. In the ninth inning, with the crowd of 33,061 on its feet, he retired Guzman on a harmless fly to left, before fanning Koskie and catcher Matthew LeCroy with a pair of blazing fastballs.

As chants of “Pedro, Pedro” echoed off the Green Monster, it was quite clear that Red Sox championship hopes rest on Martinez’ bionic arm, and right now that is a pretty good place to be.