As Pedro Martinez stepped through the bullpen gate in right field Monday night in the fifth and final game of the Red Sox-Indians playoff series, time stood still. Not figuratively, but as literally as you will ever see it.
The digital clocks displayed all around Jacobs Field read 9:45 p.m. as the great Red Sox right-hander -- supposedly injured and out for two more weeks -- suddenly took the field. Those clocks had been running perfectly all night. Yet, as soon as Martinez took the mound, pitching in relief, every timekeeper in the place stopped all at once, locked on 9:45.
The packed house of Indians fans fell quiet. Why is this fellow walking onto our field, they seemed to ask by their silence. Especially in the fifth and final game of this playoff series with the score tied 8-8 in the fourth inning? Just before the game, Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove said: "We've heard the same thing you've heard. Pedro's not available. He won't be able to throw for two weeks."
Yet, sometimes, for some players, baseball time truly does stand still. Injuries heal. The game waits for them. Or, somehow, they catch it as though everyone else is frozen.
As the scoreboard relayed that Martinez's first pitch was 91 mph, the clocks remained fixed on 9:45. As Martinez, at first gingerly, then more confidently, swept through Sandy Alomar, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome and Harold Baines, setting them aside in two swift, economical innings, the clocks never budged. Eventually, the bug got fixed and history could begin again for the Indians. But their annals will be changed profoundly.
Before Martinez appeared, every batter who'd came to the plate seemed to blast the ball farther than the last. Ping-Pong rules might as well have been in force: first to 21, win by two. Would the previous game's total of 30 runs be eclipsed?
Six innings later, the answer was delivered. Like Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and a small handful of others before him, Martinez changes the parameters of the game.
Against the highest-scoring team of the last 49 years, pitching with a stiff back and never getting the speed gun higher than 94 mph, Martinez did not allow a hit, much less a run, in six innings. Who needs that last two or three miles of speed if your change-up dematerializes on command and your curve, of many speeds, sweeps through the back door?
"He didn't throw as hard as he sometimes does . . . but he pitched," Hargrove said. In this Game 5, Hargrove twice ordered Nomar Garciaparra walked intentionally. Both times, on the next pitch, Troy O'Leary homered into the right field stands, driving home seven runs. If he isn't fired now, after all his bungles and bad luck of the last three games, then he's manager for life.
"Pedro said he felt good this afternoon after he played catch around 4 o'clock. He had a good look on his face. But you don't know how `good' that `good' really will be," said Boston Manager Jimy Williams, whose team was the first to come back from a two-game deficit in a five-game series and also win the concluding game on the road.
"We thought we might use Pedro for an inning or two. But, wow, everybody got hit hard and [his time] came early," said Williams. "We wanted to see how he felt, inning by inning. I don't think he knew how he'd feel.
"But his [back] seemed to loosen up. He didn't try to muscle the ball."
Everything about the last three games has had a ludicrously magical feeling about it. Without Garciaparra, the Red Sox scored six runs in the seventh inning of Game 3 to win 9-3. That turned the series, especially one crucial at-bat when Hargrove almost seemed indifferent to normal late-inning percentages. He left Ricardo Rincon, an ineffective left-hander, on the mound when he had a right-handed reliever ready to pitch to John Valentin. A two-run double snapped a 3-3 tie. And the snowball started rolling.
The Red Sox' historic 23-run demolition of the Indians in Game 4, coupled with the heroics of both Martinez and O'Leary in Game 5, have provided an amazing springboard for the underdog Red Sox in their ALCS matchup with the New York Yankees. And, boy, will they need it. With their pitching in shreds and Martinez's back still stiff, they appear no match for the Yankees. But that's what the Indians clearly thought -- mugging in their dugout at one point or another in each of the last three games when they took leads and thought they'd steamroll the little wild-card Red Sox.
Did 81 years of misfortune, since the Red Sox' last world title in 1918, begin to reverse itself at 9:45 tonight? Those steeped in a century of Red Sox lore know they must watch for such things. It is their duty. They are the sentinels of their team's misery. When is the exact moment -- if it ever comes -- that the Curse will be reversed? It is every Bosox fan's job, eyes fixed on the horizon, to be the first to spot the dawn of this magical era, now several generations overdue.
Was this the night -- was this precise, frozen 9:45 p.m. moment -- marked by the baseball fates as some kind of special turning point? For any other team in any other sport, such omen-mongering nonsense might seem silly. But for those infected with the romantic Red Sox disease, such overwrought thinking is a way of life.
However, one other interpretation exists as well. Red Sox fans always have their hopes lifted by long-shot possibilities so glorious that decades of cold winters will be forgotten. Such fantasies usually involve beating the Yankees. Or, in this case, a Yankees team just one season removed from 125 wins -- the most in a season in the game's history.
Will 1999 still end for the Red Sox like the last 80 seasons before it? Was this evening just the preamble to an even nastier practical joke? Instead of "Wait 'Til Next Year," will Red Sox fans be left to spend the winter thinking, "Wait until next century"?