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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pedro Persevered -- and Sox Hope his Pupils Can Too

Pedro talks, and pupils listen.

News Flash: Pedro once struggled.

One of the delights of Red Sox spring training this year has been the return of former ace-turned-special instructor Pedro Martinez. In addition to working with young and veteran pitchers on their mechanics, Pedro has been a media darling -- smiling his way through numerous radio, TV, and print interviews.

Of all the sound bytes and quotes, however, the one that struck me as the most poignant has been largely ignored. During an early-morning interview on WEEI's Dennis and Callahan show on Feb. 19, Martinez was asked by Gerry Callahan if he thought he could help Daniel Bard regain his form as one of baseball's best setup men. "Yes," the future Hall of Famer said, before adding that he understood exactly what Bard had gone through during a disastrous 2012 campaign that included a demotion to the minor leagues.

Martinez, the Sandy Koufax of his era, relate to an epic slump? How could that be?

As a young Expo, Martinez doubted his abilities.

It was during his early career, Martinez said, and he was struggling as a starting pitcher with the Montreal Expos. He went to manager Felipe Alou and told him he didn't think he could cut it as a big-leaguer.

"Felipe said, 'Are you quitting?' and I said, 'No, I just don't feel I'm performing at the level I should,'" Martinez told Callahan and WEEI listeners. 

Pedro didn't specify exactly when the exchange took place, but looking at his career stats on, I figure it was most likely 1996, when Martinez endured a two-month stretch in which he went 3-5 with an ERA above 5.00 and appeared headed to a sub-.500 record for the season. 

In the midst of his travails, Martinez explained, came an incident that as he described it sounded like something out of "The Natural" or "Field of Dreams." 

Tommy Harper: Sage advice saves an ace.

"I was sitting down on the bench after a game, and [coach] Tommy Harper came up and sat down with me," related Martinez. "He said, 'You know what? The game's over.' I said, 'Yeah...' and he said, 'You know, I always come and sit here and listen to the organ after the game. The game is over, but the organ continues to play.'

"I said, 'What do you mean by that?' and [Harper] said, 'I know you're not having the best time right now, but do you know how it goes away? Just keep pitching.' I thought about it and said, 'But I'm struggling so bad I don't even want to pitch,' and he said, 'Just keep pitching. It will go away.'"

Martinez listened to Harper's advice, finished the year 13-10, and in 1997 led the National League with a 1.90 ERA -- starting his Koufaxian seven-year stretch with Montreal and Boston as the MLB's best pitcher. Harper saw much of it up close, first with the Expos and later as a Red Sox coach.

"That's baseball," Martinez told Callahan. "Everybody goes through a little funk sometimes, and he [Bard] is having one of those."

Bard follows the master.

So how can Martinez help Bard and other Red Sox pitchers rebound from last year's disaster? Pedro said that he has a good eye for mechanics, and believes he'll know when a tweak to a hurler's delivery may make a difference. This is what he did during his own career, closely watching great pitchers like Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux in developing his own physical and mental repertoire.

"I'm a combination of everything," Martinez explained. "I took a little bit of pretty much everyone and used it to build my own experience. I hope they do that the same way."

Perhaps John Lackey, coming back from a year off after Tommy John surgery, can also pick up a thing or two from Martinez. In the midst of his string of domination, Pedro suffered a torn rotator cuff in 2001 and missed half of that season. He returned the next year as more of a control artist than a flamethrower and still went 20-4 while leading the American League in ERA and strikeouts.

"I was a student," Martinez told the Boston Globe in another interview. "I wasn't just gifted. I had to study a lot."

Once the student, now the teacher.

If Lackey, Bard, and other pitchers on the Sox staff can listen to their new teacher as well as Martinez did to mentors like Harper, Pedro's hiring may be one of the best moves the Red Sox made this offseason.

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