Pedro Martinez won the Cy Young Award three times in what now is officially a Hall of Fame career. When asked which of those seasons meant the most to him, Martinez was quick to answer.
The first one, with the Montreal Expos in 1997, was notable because Martinez became the first pitcher from the Dominican Republic to win the award. But 1999, he said, was the season that truly stands out in his memory.
That year for the Red Sox, Martinez was 23-4 with a 2.07 earned run average and 313 strikeouts, his career high. He led the American League in all three categories.
“The ’99 season, I think, was something different,” Martinez said last month. “The triple crown as a pitcher, you can’t top it. In such a difficult era to play, I would have to say that’s the highlight.”
Statistically, a case can be made that 2000 was actually a better season for him. Martinez had a 1.74 ERA that season and had a higher ERA-plus, which takes into account ballpark factors. He also had an outrageous 0.73 WHIP.
But the events that helped define the 1999 season trump those stats.
There was the All-Star Game at Fenway Park. Martinez started the game for the AL and struck out five of the six batters he faced to get the win. It was one of the highlights of his career.
Two other games were even more significant to the Red Sox, who were fighting for a playoff spot.
On Sept. 10, Martinez pitched perhaps the greatest game of his career. But it wasn’t a perfect game, a no-hitter, or even a shutout.
Facing the Yankees in the Bronx, Martinez allowed a home run by Chili Davis in the second inning. He then retired the final 22 batters in a row, 15 by strikeout. Only two balls left the infield, and Martinez fanned eight of the final nine batters he faced.
The Red Sox won the game, 3-1. Outside of Davis, the only Yankee who reached base was Chuck Knoblauch, who was hit by a pitch in the first inning, then thrown out stealing. Martinez threw 120 pitches, 80 for strikes, and finished with 17 strikeouts.
“That was the greatest game I ever saw pitched,” said Curt Schilling, who was playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time and watched the game in the clubhouse at what was then called Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. “I don’t know how anybody could have been any better.”
Schilling, who later played with Martinez in Boston in 2004, said what helped make that performance so special was that it came against an outstanding team. The Yankees won 98 games that season and scored 900 runs. They went 11-1 in the playoffs on the way to their second of three straight World Series titles.
“The Yankees were in the middle of their run and had a great lineup,” Schilling said. “Pedro was amazing in that game.”
Said Yankees manager Joe Torre, “We used to have some success against Pedro running up his pitch count and getting him out of the game. But not that night.”
Martinez counts that game among the finest of his career.
“That was a good one,” he said. “After [Davis] hit the home run, I said. ‘No more.’ ”
Martinez had another memorable game in the Division Series against the Indians.
The Sox lost the first two games of the best-of-five series. Martinez started the opener but lasted only four innings because of a back injury. Bret Saberhagen then took a beating in Game 2.
Back at Fenway, the Sox won, 9-3 and 23-7, to even the series. Game 5 was the next day at Jacobs Field and Saberhagen, pitching on short rest, was hit hard again.
Martinez entered an 8-8 game in the fourth inning and threw six no-hit innings. He walked three and struck out eight to finish a wild series with a 12-8 win and get the Red Sox to the AL Championship Series. The Indians scored 32 runs on 38 hits in the first 38 innings of that series, then were shut down.
“Nobody really knew whether he was going to pitch that day or not,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “Once he got out there, there was no stopping him. He gave us everything he had.”
In the ALCS, Martinez started Game 3 against the Yankees at Fenway Park. He threw seven shutout innings that day, allowing two hits with two walks and 12 strikeouts in a 13-1 victory. That he was opposing Roger Clemens made it even sweeter.
“I wasn’t feeling too good that day,” Martinez said. “That wasn’t a comfortable game for me. But I did what I had to do.”
The Red Sox saw their season end a few days later. For Martinez, it was a season that could come up when he makes his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Cooperstown in July.
“That was one year I can say I did everything I could,” he said. “The ’99 season, that is the one I always will remember.”