In their search for a reliable - or merely a liable - fifth starting pitcher this spring, the Seattle Mariners resorted to a peculiar inspiration.
In this, their 21st season, the M’s pinned their modest hopes on a man who beat them to the big leagues by a year.
The delicious irony: Providing the rotation experiences no hiccups or sore arms, Seattle’s starter on Turn Back the Clock Night July 19 will be Dennis Martinez - for whom every night is Turn Back the Clock Night.
Of course, a possible hiccup might be his imminent release or retirement.
As proud a warrior as can be found in baseball, Martinez is working on a self-imposed deadline to get good or get gone. He can take a hint, and lately the hints had been loud and long. After lasting just four-plus innings in a 9-5 loss to Baltimore last Sunday, Martinez said if he didn’t improve in the next three starts, he’d quit.
The Mariners gave him two.
Just one question: What’s the hurry?
The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality is an inevitable symptom of professional sports, but when the object is to establish a No. 5 starter - not an ace or a closer - and the subject has won 241 major league games, you wonder if urgency is really the best policy.
Friday night, Martinez came to the same conclusion.
Two days after his 42nd birthday, Martinez worked 7-1/2 innings of a 6-3 loss to the Orioles - an outing that lowered his earned run average by just .10 but increased his confidence tenfold.
Asked if he was past the pressure of having to prove himself in his next start, Martinez nodded. “I am, myself,” he said. “I don’t know about them. But whatever they do is OK with me.
“Now I know if they release me, I feel I can still pitch. And maybe somebody else will open the door after what they saw today and hopefully what they will see the next time.”
Going back to when the Mariners resurrected Martinez in spring training, it’s been hard to be certain that these two parties were ever quite on the same page. After deciding his damaged right elbow - he spent almost half of the 1996 season on the disabled list - was sound, the Mariners gave him a contract for $250,000 with $200,000 more in incentives and started penciling in the wins.
Martinez felt he could use spring training to pitch his arm back into shape; the ballclub was looking for results. That led to a flap over whether the man closing in on the major league record for victories by a Latin-born pitcher should have to make his 1997 debut in Triple-A Tacoma.
Martinez won that battle. Now he’s trying to win another. Friday counted as a qualified success. On one hand, he lost - his fourth defeat against one victory. His ERA is still 6.65. He was ripped in the third and fourth innings by the bottom of the Orioles lineup - Lenny Webster and Mike Bordick, hitting a collective .170.
On the other hand, he threw five three-up, three-down innings, hung an 0-for-4 on Eric Davis and his .370 bat and allowed just eight singles to a lineup that featured five guys who hit 20 or more home runs last year. And Lenny Webster later homered off M’s reliever Josias Manzanillo, so that could have been a karma thing.
“He threw the ball better,” said M’s manager Lou Piniella. “We just didn’t give him much run support.
“Basically, you come to grips with yourself and you say, ‘I’m going to throw the ball the best way I can and be as aggressive as I can and let the chips fall where they may.’ That’s what he did tonight. He didn’t nibble. He went after hitters more pronouncedly. He pitched quicker and threw the ball better.”
The deadline set by Martinez - and shortened by Piniella - was real enough.
Though he has won just once, Martinez did have solid - winnable - efforts in two losses, and chafed at what he perceived to be bad press for his overall performance. And yet the game last Sunday in Baltimore pushed him to the edge.
“My family was there; it was Mother’s Day,” he recalled. “I felt I let down my family. I was suffering after that game and I knew my family was suffering, too. So I came to the point where I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ I cannot put myself and my family through this because I want to leave the game with my head up.”
He suggested then that the M’s might be better served breaking in a younger pitcher - and yet you wonder who he or the M’s might have in mind. Bob Wolcott got shipped to Tacoma on Friday and last year’s No. 5-by-committee was an unmitigated disaster.
This isn’t the adopt-a-geezer program the Mariners operated for the better part of two decades. They aren’t renting a drawing card like Gaylord Perry or providing a last safe haven for gimpy sluggers like Willie Horton and Richie Zisk. They aren’t fishing for washed-up closers like Goose Gossage or Bobby Thigpen.
Martinez can still pitch - well enough, at least, to be a fifth starter.
He suspects the accelerated deadline has something to do with the incentive clauses that kick in the longer he stays and the more innings he throws. But with a $40 million payroll, it’s hard to imagine the M’s being that chintzy with 200 grand.
Piniella’s patience - or lack thereof - is a more likely reason.
But only Martinez can buy himself more time.
“I’m the one with the ball in my hand - I can dictate what happens on the field,” he said.
“The way I pitched today was a step forward. I found myself again and I’m not going to give up.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review