Pedro remains key to Mets' hopes in October

NEW YORK -- The party at Shea was still raging out on the field, with the Mets and family members celebrating the franchise's first Eastern Division title since 1988. Hundreds of fans hung around to savor the moment on Monday night, too, officially dethroning the Braves by doing a mock chop.

Everyone chanted Pedro Martinez's name, practically begging the right-hander to come out of the clubhouse and join the open-air asylum. The Mets were all there, chugging and spraying champagne, but Pedro never showed up, choosing to remain indoors.

It was a telling decision for the man who's been the Mets' most popular and fun-loving player. Normally, Pedro would've monopolized the face time on TV, but not now. Not when his body hurts, his fastball is still in recovery and by Martinez's own admission, his emotional state would interest Dr. Phil.

Martinez will be the Mets' Game 1 starter in the Division Series; that much was made clear by manager Willie Randolph on Monday. Beyond that, however, there are only questions.

Is Pedro healthy enough to outpitch, say, Greg Maddux, should the Mets run into the Dodgers as the wild card? Could Martinez conceivably pitch on three days' rest should the series go to a decisive fifth game?

And even more importantly, does Pedro still have enough self-confidence to fulfill his mandate, which is to lead the Mets in October?

These are all pressing questions, given Martinez's bizarre response to the four runs he allowed the Pirates in three innings last Friday night. He walked to the far corner of the dugout and started to cry.

Why? Perhaps because Pedro thought he would be unhittable after so much time off. He was making his first appearance since Aug. 14, which should've been enough time to bolster his velocity.

Maybe Martinez knows he's running out of time, given there are only two weeks to go before the playoffs. Or maybe it's a much larger gloom that hovers over Pedro. He's 34 and his days of being a power pitcher (not to mention being pain free) are obviously over.

Pedro did say, however, his tears were not from any physical pain.

"No, no, I know what being hurt is," he told The New York Times. "But I was really disappointed that I didn't feel better."

The Mets will send Martinez to the mound on Thursday against the Marlins with fingers tightly crossed. He needs a better fastball, better command of the strike zone. Above all, Pedro needs to believe in himself again.

But it's not like he's on audition, either. When Randolph decided Martinez would be his Game 1 starter, the manager added it would take a complete breakdown for anything to change his mind.

Which is to say, the Mets are going on faith.

"Pedro's a warrior," said general manager Omar Minaya. "He's not going to be 100 percent, but even when he's not 100 percent he finds a way to win. At least he's going to be competitive."

No one denies Martinez is as tough and resilient as any pitcher of this generation. Mets veterans still talk about his Opening Day salvo fired at the Reds in 2005, when he walked in from the bullpen after warm-ups and deliberately strolled in front of Cincinnati's dugout on his way to the bench.

It took guts to antagonize an opponent before throwing a pitch in the National League for the first time since being with the Expos in 1997. But that was Pedro a year ago, fresh off the Red Sox's conquering of the Yankees and a four-game sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series.

In 2006, however, Martinez seems less exuberant, certainly less durable. In fact, he's becoming exactly what the Red Sox whispered he'd be after they allowed the Mets to outbid them during free agency.

Just wait, the Sox cautioned, when the Mets coughed up $53 million for four years. Halfway into that pact, Martinez will finish with the fewest innings since his rookie year in 1993, while his ERA has strayed over 4.00 for the first time in his career.

The only consolation for the Mets is that Martinez's most recent injury was to his right calf, not his arm. But Pedro himself pointed out, "that's your push-off leg. You don't know how it's going to react. And it's not totally healthy yet. So we have to be cautious."

Can the Mets get past the first round without Pedro at full efficiency? That's the scenario no one wants to answer, or even consider. It's easier to believe Martinez can somehow resurrect his past. Conceivably, though, he handle the light-hitting Padres and Dodgers even with diminished stuff.

But memories of the eight-run, three-inning flogging Pedro absorbed from the Red Sox in June make the Mets anxious about the World Series -- especially if they face the Yankees.

One Mets official admitted he was half-awed, half-distressed as he summarized the Bombers' attack.

"That lineup is sick, it might be the best-hitting team they've ever had," he said. "They can put up a five-spot at any time in the game, except maybe the ninth inning."

Pedro has two weeks to find answers, although it'll be even longer than that before anyone forgets his tears. There's no crying in October.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.