BALTIMORE The first game of the 2004 baseball season on American soil features the debut of two managers, the unveiling of the Baltimore Orioles' overhauled lineup and the start of another quest by the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series.
All this is meaningful, yet the most intriguing aspect of Sunday night's opener is the anticipation surrounding the performance of a veteran pitcher who is no stranger to such fanfare: Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.
When Martinez last pitched in a game that counted, he yielded a tying, two-run double to Jorge Posada in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the AL championship series last Oct. 16 against the New York Yankees.
New York won 6-5 in the 11th. Boston manager Grady Little's decision to leave Martinez in the game probably cost him his job, and now it's up to Terry Francona to decide how best to use Martinez.
That will depend on the pitcher's health and his effectiveness. Some say Martinez has lost velocity on his fastball he had a 6.75 ERA in five spring training starts but he insists that things will be different now that the games count.
''I'm fine,'' Martinez said after his last exhibition start, a three-inning struggle against Toronto. ''I got my pitches in. It's spring training. The results don't matter.''
When it mattered last year, Martinez was excellent. He went 14-4 with a 2.22 ERA and 206 strikeouts while limiting opposing hitters to a league-low .215 average.
This year, he heads a staff improved by the addition of Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke. If Martinez holds up his end, the Red Sox should at least challenge the Yankees, who opened the season Tuesday in Tokyo with a two-game series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The Orioles hope to test Martinez with an improved batting order that features Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez in the 3-4-5 spots. The game will also mark the debut of rookie manager Lee Mazzilli and the first opening day start for Sidney Ponson, the new staff ace.
Ponson won't have to face Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra or right fielder Trot Nixon, both of whom are injured, but the right-hander knows this won't be an easy assignment.
''They brought most of the same guys back and they were the best-hitting team in the big leagues last year,'' Ponson said. ''Everybody has a weakness, but if you make mistakes with that team, they're going to kill you.''
The Orioles have the punch to make up a reasonable deficit, but there is little margin for error when Martinez is on the mound for the Red Sox.
''I'm not facing Pedro; I'm facing Boston,'' Ponson said. ''I've pitched against Pedro before; he beat me a couple times and I beat him a couple times. He's the best pitcher in the league, but he's beatable.''
A subplot to the game involves Mazzilli and Francona, both of whom interviewed for the Orioles' opening after Baltimore fired Mike Hargrove. Mazzilli got the job, leaving Francona free to interview as Little's replacement.
Francona went 285-363 from 1997-00 as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.
''There was no pitching. Schilling had been traded, and there just wasn't much of a bullpen there,'' Francona said. ''Those things got addressed the year after I left.''
Much to Francona's delight, the Red Sox got Schilling and improved their bullpen during the offseason. Boston also added Pokey Reese and Ellis Burks to an already formidable lineup.
Now it's up to Martinez to get Boston started as it tries to win the World Series for the first time since 1918.
''He's been the best in the game forever,'' Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said, ''and I don't expect him not to be.''
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