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Pedro looks good enough to contribute

Pedro looks ready to contribute

CHICAGO -- Pedro Martinez is back on the mound and back in the win column. We don't know if he can keep making regular appearances in both places, but his work Wednesday night at Wrigley Field was truly an encouraging start.

Martinez has typically been good for baseball. He has been great and he has been entertaining. And even when he stopped being great, he was still entertaining.

In his latest incarnation, as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Martinez is not being asked to rediscover the greatness. But he will be asked to be good, and good on a regular basis. Does he have enough left, at age 37 -- four years past his last reasonably healthy season -- to help the defending World Series champions?

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The answer from Martinez's 2009 debut against the Chicago Cubs was better than possibly. His work looked more impressive to the eye than his final numbers indicated -- five innings, seven hits, three earned runs, one walk, five strikeouts. The rest of the Phillies celebrated Pedro's return to the big time by hitting the ball all over northeastern Illinois, beating the Cubs, 12-5.

"I hope nothing changes," Martinez said with a smile, referring to the run support. "I just hope to improve myself. I have to do a little bit better for them and hopefully give that bullpen a little bit more rest."

Martinez's command has never deserted him. Some of his lost velocity has returned. He is as good as could be expected. The 2009 model cannot be measured against the same fellow at the peak of his career, but that is not the point. That pitcher won three Cy Young Awards and put up some of the most impressive seasons since the likes of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax.

"Pedro was a dominating frontline pitcher, a competitor, [with] great stuff, and a winner," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had a typically sensible way to look at that issue.

"I know he's not going to be the Pedro I used to see," Manuel said, "because that guy might have been the best pitcher in baseball at one time."

There was a time when Pedro Martinez had a virtually unhittable blend of both power and precision on the mound. Now it is enough to note that he looks a lot better than he did with the Mets in 2008. He was coming off major shoulder surgery the previous year, made only 20 starts, and frequently had little resemblance to the pitcher he once was.

The 2009 Pedro Martinez appeared to be much better than that. He was what Manuel had suggested he would be -- a pitcher once again good enough to win at the highest level.

"Two things I really noticed," Manuel said. "First of all, he's in better shape than he was last year. I kind of always felt when I saw him last year that he might have been still hurt. And he's got a different arm angle than he had last year, and from what everybody told me, was that his velocity was up some; they said from 86 to 91 [mph].

"If he's doing like 88 to 90, and it's sitting there in that area with his changeup and his breaking ball, with his knowledge of how to pitch and his command, I think he's got a chance to be pretty good."

The fact was that after opening the game with his fastball in the 87-88 mph range, Martinez topped out at 92 in the second inning and was consistently at 91-92 for two innings. He was still hitting 90 in the fifth. That was the only problem inning for Martinez, in which he allowed a completely atypical walk to Cubs reliever Sean Marshall and gave up two runs.

But the renewed velocity was highly encouraging, creating once again the necessary separation between his fastball and his offspeed pitches. But the worth of Pedro Martinez as a pitcher could never completely be captured by a radar gun.

"I think he's got a tremendous feel for pitching," Manuel said. "He's always had that. And I think he's very intelligent and he's got tremendous command. I think he likes the stage; the bigger the stage, I think he likes it."

This situation is definitely big-stage material. The Phillies, going for consecutive World Series championships, but finding some shortcomings in the pitching department, need help. A rejuvenated Pedro Martinez rides to the rescue. (OK, Cliff Lee also rides to the rescue, but let's try not to diminish the plot.) Pedro Martinez is once again front and center, in the spotlight, needed by a team that is playing for the largest stakes of all.

This is one step in a journey for Martinez. His return to the Majors represents a promise that he made to his father, just before his father's death last July. That is a deeply emotional issue with the pitcher. And on the physical side of the comeback, Martinez says that the last time he felt this healthy was "early 2001."

"I actually feel good, and it shows," Martinez said. "I just feel so healthy that it would seem like a shame to just go home, feeling the way that I feel."

Martinez's return has not been a simple matter of addition for Philadelphia. With Martinez joining the rotation, the Phillies have demoted Jamie Moyer to the bullpen. Moyer had been a mainstay of this rotation, and he is one of the most admired competitors in the game. He has said that he will not become a distraction to the team, but he is "disheartened" by the move.

On the other side of it is Pedro Martinez, feeling healthy, happy, whole and optimistic.

"I'm healthy and I'm going to improve," Martinez said Wednesday night. "Regardless of what happened today, I'm going to improve. ... I want to help this team win when it matters the most."

That is exactly what the Phillies want from Martinez. His return is no longer a matter of conjecture. He is back with a real chance to contribute, just as he says, when it matters most.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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