Pedro Martinez can make a strong team weak. Last night, before a sellout crowd of 48,354 at Camden Yards, he made a struggling team vanish.
Martinez's 15-strikeout, no-walk performance was enough to suck the suspense out of the game shortly after it started and neutralized the best outing by an Orioles starting pitcher in nearly two weeks.
It's not certain the Orioles saw Martinez's best start this month, though the performance allowed him to tie Luis Tiant's 32-year-old record for strikeouts in consecutive games (32).
The Orioles didn't need this. Not now. The loss was their fifth straight and ninth in 10 games and sent them tumbling to 16-19. But no loss has been this thorough."You hear all this stuff: 'He did it again with 17 strikeouts, whatever.' Then you see it for yourself. We've got some pretty good fastball hitters and he's dominating. He's the best," said shortstop Mike Bordick.
Sidney Ponson (2-2) became an accessory to Martinez's night after righting himself from a traumatic first inning and a frustrating second. A respectable game was blown apart when Calvin Maduro yielded a four-run ninth that included Trot Nixon's three-run homer onto the right-field patio.
After becoming the second Orioles starter in as many nights to receive a visit from pitching coach Sammy Ellis after facing just three hitters, Ponson provided a needed infusion of eight innings.
He pitched with the knowledge that a comeback against the incumbent AL Cy Young Award-winner was about as statistically improbable as winning the Big Game with a single ticket, but he persevered through eight innings and left trailing, 5-0."I would love to go every time out there against a guy like that. He brings the best out in you. But it didn't happen today," said Ponson. "I made a lot of bad pitches - base hits, home runs -so it didn't help me today."
If Ponson retains last night's form, he might win his promised 15 games this season. As for Martinez, "If Pedro pitches like this all year, he'll win 30 games," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove."That's as dominating as I've ever seen him. ... I don't think I've ever seen anyone be this consistently dominant. This guy is better than Randy Johnson."
In a town that loves its Orioles, but also has a reverence for the game, the night produced a novel chant: "Let's go, Pe-dro. Let's go, Pe-dro"
Apparently, it's not just Yankee carpetbaggers who can steal the Camden faithful. Martinez's effort made the home team bit players in a 113-pitch masterpiece.
By the ninth inning, the night's momentum had made Eutaw Street into Fenway South. The capacity crowd stood to cheer his final pitch, a half-swing strikeout of Delino DeShields.
Martinez rewarded his supporters by staying late for an interview with Home Team Sports, autographing a game ball, walking it over to a child along the third-base rail, then lifting his left arm to the cheering fans behind the visitors' dugout.
"I was really surprised the way they turned around," Martinez said. "I think some of those fans who were rooting for the Orioles really changed. They made me feel real happy and really proud to hear that they appreciate baseball."
Martinez struck out a hitter in every inning except the fourth. He faced the minimum 12 hitters through four innings before allowing Albert Belle a ground single base to begin the fifth.
Two hitters later, first baseman Jeff Conine advanced Belle to second with the Orioles' second hit. However, the threat ended with a strikeout and a ground ball.
"You always hope you get something going and put some pressure on him. But he shuts it down. And I think he shut us down pretty quick," said Bordick.
A Martinez start is as dazzling as it is powerful. As he struck out six through three innings, he took the breath away from the crowd.
By the eighth inning, his outing had become impressive enough for the crowd to shamelessly cheer each of his K's.
"He's got all those pitches - fastball, curveball, slider and changeup - and he has great command of all of them. He can throw them at all times," said Hargrove.
"He and [Mike] Mussina are similar because they're not afraid to throw any of their pitches no matter what the score, no matter what the situation, no matter what the count, and throw them for strikes. They're not many people who can go out there and triple up and quadruple [pitches] and get away with it like Pedro does."
How dominant was Martinez?
"He can strike you out three ways," said designated hitter Harold Baines. "He can throw you three fastballs, three curveballs or three changeups."
Martinez pitched out of the stretch for a total of 11 pitches.
He reached two strikes on 17 hitters. Only two of them put the next strike into play.
He struck out every Orioles starter at least once, with Mark Lewis the final holdout to end the eighth.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 50/WBAL (1090AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Jeff Fassero (4-1, 4.31) vs. O's Jason Johnson (0-2, 6.14)