NEW YORK -- It is a pitching matchup for the millennium. The greatest pitcher in Boston Red Sox history will take the mound for the New York Yankees this afternoon against the best pitcher in baseball today.
What more could a baseball fan ask than to watch five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens return to Fenway Park for a playoff showdown with presumptive 1999 Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez?
The game is so loaded with historical and strategic significance that it has to rank among the greatest postseason pitching showcases of all time.
The Red Sox have to win, and they have the right guy on the mound for that. Martinez has been the most overpowering pitcher in either league this year, and he polished his growing legend with a six-inning, no-hit relief appearance to propel the Sox into the American League Championship Series.
Now, he's got a new mission -- to prove that the Red Sox belong in the postseason with the last truly great team of the 20th century. The Yankees grinded out one-run victories in the first two games of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium. If they upstage Martinez, the best-of-seven series will be all but over.
So, all the pressure is on Pedro, right?
Not even close. Roger Clemens has pitched at Fenway since he left the Red Sox as a free agent three years ago, but he has never been in a situation like this. The Yankees may have the luxury of losing Game 3 -- they would still be in control of the series -- but Clemens has a lot more riding on this game than his teammates.
He never pitched particularly well in the postseason when Red Sox fans were rooting for him. He certainly does not want to give them the satisfaction of seeing him lose when they are sure to be rooting against him.
"I have thrown here before in different situations," Clemens said at yesterday's off-day news conference. "I think obviously this will be the biggest game because of the situation and because of the game obviously. I will have so many emotions that I will have to curtail somehow. It will be exciting."
This will be the second time in the postseason that Clemens has faced a hostile homecoming game. He pitched Game 3 of the Division Series against the Texas Rangers at The Ballpark in Arlington -- just a short flight from his Houston-area home -- and delivered a dominating performance to close out the three-game sweep. But the atmosphere in Boston, not to mention the competition, figures to be much more highly charged.
"When you get into these types of games, your focus has to elevate," Clemens said. "I know tomorrow that definitely will have to be the case. I don't think that I am going to be afforded many mistakes against Pedro. Obviously, what he did to us at our place [seven innings, 11 strikeouts on May 18], he had everything at the time, so the only thing we can hope for is that he has a little hiccup or something -- a little opening and we can take advantage of it."
Martinez can only hope that Clemens is the one to wilt when the Red Sox fans turn up the heat, but he isn't holding his breath.
"I think Roger is very professional and he has been through everything, so he should know how to handle the situation, just like I will," Martinez said. "I hope he puts a lot of pressure on himself and gives it up soon, but Roger is Roger and he's been through everything."
Martinez appears to be impervious to pressure. He was so dominant during the regular season that the Cy Young was never even at issue. The only question was whether he also would be named AL Most Valuable Player.
It could happen. The award usually goes to an everyday player, in part because some voters feel that pitchers already have their own award and partly because some feel that it is nearly impossible for a player who appears in a fraction of the regular-season games to be most valuable.
Nevertheless, Martinez is likely to finish among the top three vote-getters, and no one is discounting the impact that he had on the Red Sox this year. They would not be here without him. They would not be anywhere without him.
He held together a pitching staff that lost its closer early on and never had adequate depth in the starting rotation. He was 23-4 -- registering nearly a quarter of the Red Sox regular-season victories -- and that was in spite of an injury that cost him five starts.
"This kid had some kind of year in 1999, just a tremendous year, game in and game out," said Boston manager Jimy Williams, "and then look at the guy the other day when we needed to win that game if we were going to advance."
Postseason performance is not considered in the Cy Young and MVP selection process. Ballots have to be mailed in before the start of the playoffs. But Martinez made his case before a national audience during the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians.
Martinez had to be removed from a strong performance in Game 1 with an injury to his upper back, but he returned in Game 5 to pitch six hitless innings of relief and nail down the decisive victory. He isn't 100 percent, but he seems confident he will be able to go deep into today's game.
"I just lay myself in God's hands and let it happen," he said. "My body might be beat. My arm might be beat. But my heart is out there and my mind and my love for the game and respect for the fans it is out there. Those things drive me and make me a little bit stronger than any exercise that I could do."
The Yankees acquired Clemens last spring in the hope that he would have the same kind of impact on their starting rotation, but he could not replicate the performance that brought him back-to-back Cy Young Awards during his two seasons with the Blue Jays.
Clemens was 8-2 at the end of June, but struggled to a 6-8 record during the final three months and lost his final regular-season start to Mike Mussina and the Orioles. If that left open any question about his late-season endurance, he cleared that up with his seven-inning, three-hit performance against the Rangers last Saturday night.
Of course, that Division Series outing also raised some new questions, since the Rangers raised bruises on Clemens twice with sharp shots back to the mound. He was hit below the right knee by a sharp one-hopper early in the game and took a ball off his pitching hand later in the game, but claims he will be 100 percent when he takes the mound today.
NOTES: Red Sox first baseman Mike Stanley's injured right wrist was wrapped in ice yesterday, but he said he felt he would be able to play in Game 3. Stanley's wrist was bruised in the eighth inning of Game 2 when he was hit by a pitch from Jeff Nelson. Brian Daubach, the designated hitter in the first two games against New York, probably would play first base if Stanley can't. Boston reliever Rich Garces, who pitched Wednesday but wasn't available Thursday because of a sore arm, said he would be ready today.