One of the first things people notice about baseball's best pitcher is his physical appearance. Boston Red Sox right-hander Pedro Martinez stands a shade under six feet tall and is an unimposing 170 pounds. His voice is soft, his personality engaging. Teammates and coaches swear that his humility is genuine.

"In today's world of pro sports, where you see so much of the chest pounding and the egomaniacs, he's a breath of fresh air," pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said.

Yet if Pedro Martinez doesn't have the imposing size of Randy Johnson or the physical presence of Roger Clemens, he has pretty much everything else, and near the midway point of his sixth full season, he stands alone atop his profession.

"He's the most dominant pitcher I've seen in my 26 years," Kerrigan said. "He's so devastating. He can play a power game with you and can also play a finesse game when he doesn't have his number one fastball. He's the most complete package you'll see."

That package includes a 95-mph fastball, baseball's best change-up and lights-out control that allows him to work hitters inside and outside, high and low. Scouts say he has the uncanny ability to rise to another level in clutch situations, pointing to a recent start when his 136th and final pitch was clocked at 96 mph.

The Red Sox sent shock waves through baseball two winters ago when they signed him to a seven-year, $90 million contract that made him the highest-paid pitcher in the game for a few months. Martinez, 27, has thrived under the pressure that comes with that kind of money. Since signing the deal, he is 33-9, including a playoff victory last season. This season, Martinez leads the American League in victories (13), earned-run average (2.10) and strikeouts (161). Only Seattle's Jamie Moyer has pitched more innings, but no one has come close to Martinez's overall consistency.

"He's like a guy from another era," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said. "He doesn't pay any attention to pitch counts or that stuff. He just worries about the scoreboard."

Martinez brushes off such compliments, saying: "I don't let that stuff affect me. I don't think being told you're the ace means anything. You have to go out there and perform when they give you the ball."

Others aren't as restrained. Palmer calls Martinez "the definition of a number one starter." Orioles second baseman Delino DeShields, who was once traded for Martinez, said: "He's just gifted. He's on top of his game." Tommy Harper, a longtime major leaguer as player and coach, said the two most extraordinary teammates he ever knew were Martinez and Dennis Eckersley. "They are the greatest I've met at accepting responsibility," he explained.

At a time when pitching is ridiculously thin and many starters consider finishing six innings a moral victory, Martinez is the exception. He has gone to the mound 15 times this season and pitched at least seven innings 12 times. He has not pitched fewer than six innings in any start and has allowed two earned runs or less 13 times. In his two losses, the Red Sox scored three runs.

Almost as impressive as his consistency is his ability to rise to the occasion. He won his only postseason start of 1998 and is 4-0 with a 1.91 ERA against the Indians, Braves and Yankees this season.

The Red Sox are much better when Martinez pitches (13-2) than when anyone else takes the mound (28-28).

"He understands the responsibility that goes with being the number one starter," Kerrigan said. "Not only being the number one guy, but carrying the salary he does. He talks about that a lot. He wants to earn his salary and he's very open about it."

Scouts say there may be fewer than 10 true number one starters in baseball, but there is little doubt Martinez is the best of that group. He's 49-17 since the start of the 1997 season, and, at the moment, is the biggest reason the Red Sox are 41-30 and a game behind the New York Yankees in the AL East. The Red Sox can't hit like the Indians, and they don't have the top-to-bottom roster depth of the Yankees. But they have a pitcher who gives them a chance to play well into October.

"The most impressive thing outside of his stuff is his ability to win and his ability to come with a great pitch when he needs to," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. "He just doesn't let the little things get to him."

Perhaps no Boston pitcher since Luis Tiant has touched the heart of Red Sox fans the way Martinez has. Not even Roger Clemens was as beloved as Martinez. A New England columnist speculated that the Red Sox and Martinez were a perfect marriage because Boston is one of the few places where baseball is taken as seriously as it is in Martinez's native Dominican Republic.

"If you see him pitch in person, even if you didn't know anything about baseball and just came off the street to watch the game, I think you would get the feeling he's something special," Kerrigan said. "You can see his intensity and his passion. I think the fans can feel that."

Martinez sees it another way. "I've been able to stay humble," he said. "I don't care about the money. I don't care about fame and getting my name in the paper. I don't really like the exposure. I just like doing my job and being an example. I haven't forgotten my background. I grew up a poor man. I'm happy I'm able to help other people. I think that's why people appreciate me. I don't see myself as a big shot. I try to stay simple. I was raised as a poor man. I live a little more comfortably, but I don't show it off."

And to think that some wondered if he were even capable of being a starter in the big leagues. The Los Angeles Dodgers traded him to Montreal for DeShields in 1993, in part because they believed his lack of size would prevent him from sustaining enough velocity to win.

"I was really disappointed and very insecure about my future when that happened," Martinez said. "It made me feel I wasn't good enough. I was never given a chance to start in the big leagues by the Dodgers, and you feel a little bit confused. But my brother [Ramon] told me, `Hey, they're still going to play baseball where you're going. You know how to do that.' That kind of got me on track, and I found Felipe, who is one of the biggest reasons for my success."

Expos Manager Felipe Alou has known the Martinez family since the days when Pedro's father was a teammate when they were youngsters in the Dominican Republic. If the Dodgers couldn't see that Pedro Martinez was something special, Alou could.

He inserted him into his starting rotation and watched him develop into one of the National League's most consistent performers. In four seasons, he went 55-33. With Martinez approaching free agency after the 1997 season, the Expos traded him to the Red Sox for pitcher Carl Pavano and outfielder Tony Armas Jr. Now, Martinez pitches in Fenway Park, where fans chant his name from the moment he begins to warm up.

"I loved pitching in L.A., where there's a lot of tradition," Martinez said. "But it's nothing like Fenway. The fans are wild. They cheer when you do well. They really enjoy the game and understand the game. Sometimes they're a little bit demanding, but they support you. They expect you to perform for them."

Martinez is almost a lock to be the AL starter when the All-Star Game is played at Fenway Park, and in a normal season, that would be thrill enough.

But this season may not be a normal one. Older brother Ramon, who has been traveling with the Red Sox while recovering from an arm injury, will be activated and join Pedro in the starting rotation shortly after the all-star break. They may be joined by younger bother Jesus in September if he recovers from a shoulder problem.

"It would be really neat to have all three of us here," Pedro Martinez said. "It has been great having Ramon here. It's really relaxing to me. He's a coach, brother and friend. I have everything I need to express myself and correct myself when there's a problem. But I just want both of them to get healthy. That's my main concern. I pray to God we get a chance to play together sometime."

CAPTION: Red Sox' Pedro Martinez leads American League in victories (13), ERA (2.10), strikeouts (161).