The postseason fortunes of New York’s big-league baseball teams hinge on two right arms belonging to the once and future kings of the sport. The Mets’ Pedro Martinez, 35, for years regarded as the best starting pitcher in baseball, is due back from rehab any day now, and the Yankees’ Phil Hughes, 21, everyone’s can’t-miss prospect, is already back. The Mets’ chance for success in the playoffs depends largely on Pedro finding his old self. The Yankees’ chance of even making the playoffs almost certainly depends on Hughes reaching his potential—quickly.
Mets fans don’t have to be told, but for the uninitiated, a legitimate argument could be made that Pedro Martinez, at his peak, has been the best starting pitcher in baseball history. Not “the greatest,” as in the most wins or strikeouts—durability was never Martinez’s strongest point—but “the best,” as in the most effective. He’s led his league in ERA five times, won three Cy Young awards, and accumulated a 15-year career won-lost percentage of .691.
Martinez’s arrival in New York in 2005 gave the Mets instant credibility as contenders. At 15-8, he finished third in the league in strikeouts and fourth in ERA. Last season, he started off on a hot streak: By the end of May, he was 5-1 with a 2.50 ERA and 88 strikeouts in just 76 innings. Then, on May 26 against the Florida Marlins, he was so unhittable that the umpires ordered him to go into the clubhouse and change his undershirt. (Did they think he was wearing the one with thumbtacks sewn in the seams?) He slipped in the corridor, injuring his hip and precipitating a season of injuries. He was only 2-7 the rest of the way. It is an article of faith among Mets fans that an article of clothing cost their team the pennant.
“Who’s to say it didn’t?” says Mets announcer Ron Darling. “Wouldn’t you have liked the Mets’ chances in the league championship series if Pedro had started two games, or even one?”
Exactly what the Yankees’ chances would be with Philip Hughes starting a playoff game or two is harder to determine, but the Yankees are desperate to find out. The last time a rookie pitcher stirred up this much excitement in the Bronx was . . . never, though Mets fans experienced something similar in the mid-’80s with Dwight Gooden. Hughes is the most heralded prospect in Yankees history, and he’s already being called “The Pocket Rocket” for the uncanny resemblance that his windup and delivery bear to those of Roger Clemens. The difference is that Clemens, like most Yankee pitchers, can no longer close the deal, while Hughes averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 45 minor-league starts. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, and throwing a deadly 97-mph four-seam fastball and his patented “knee-buckler” of a slow ball, Hughes is not merely unlike anyone the Yankees currently have: “He may,” says Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus, “be unlike any rookie pitcher the Yankees have ever had. There’s been some big, strong right-handers over the years—Vic Raschi and Allie Reynolds in the late 1940s, ‘Bullet’ Bob Turley in the 1950s—but no one this young with so much promise.”
Hughes seemed on the verge of delivering that promise in his second major-league start on May 1 against the Texas Rangers, when he threw a no-hitter for 6 1/3 innings before sustaining what the injury report called a “Grade I hamstring strain.” It didn’t seem like much, and when they told him to go to rehab, he did an Amy Winehouse and said
no, no, no. But Yankee physicians were adamant about not taking chances with their Can’t-Miss Kid. Then, 24 days later, he sprained an ankle during conditioning exercise—a Grade III, if you’re counting.
In his comeback against Kansas City last Saturday, Hughes looked liked he was picking up where he left off against Texas back in May, striking out four in the first two innings. Then the inactivity caught up to him in a rush. “He started losing his velocity in the third inning,” says Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry. “I figure it’ll take him a couple of starts to build up his arm strength and stamina. But I saw what I wanted to see: He struck out five and walked two, and if your strikeouts exceed your innings pitched and you strike out twice as many as you walk, you’re going to win.” In three appearances, Hughes has pitched 15 2/3 innings, struck out 16 and walked six.
The late, great sportswriter Leonard Koppett once said, “The stretch run for the pennant constitutes a whole second season unto itself.” For Mets and Yankees fans, the second season is about to begin.