As the Red Sox and Indians braced for a winner-take-all Game 5 of the American League Division Series on Oct. 11, 1999, one question emerged loudly to the forefront: Would Pedro Martinez be able to pitch?
While on his way to the Hall of Fame, Martinez was otherworldly in '99, going 23-4 with 313 strikeouts and a 2.07 ERA while winning his second of three Cy Young Awards. For context, David Cone finished second in the AL that year with a 3.44 ERA, and the Majors-wide mark was 4.71, still the second highest of any season since 1901.
Pitching with an injured right shoulder against a Cleveland team that scored 1,009 runs during the regular season (still MLB’s most since '50) seemed like a daunting task, even for Martinez.
This set the stage for Martinez to produce perhaps the defining moment of his illustrious career, firing six no-hit innings in relief to carry his team to victory. Before Martinez set foot on the mound, a surreal slugfest took place in the first three innings. Twenty years later, here is a look back at a memorable night at Jacobs Field through the eyes of several of the key participants.
THE LEAD-UP TO AN EPIC
The Indians won the first two games of the ALDS in Cleveland, and when Martinez exited Game 1 after four innings with an injury to the back of his right shoulder, the Red Sox appeared to be finished. But Boston manager Jimy Williams came up with a mantra beginning with Game 3 at Fenway Park, and his players kept parroting it: “You better sweep us!” In other words, the Sox felt that if the Indians didn’t finish it off when they could, they would be finished themselves.
The resilient Sox won Game 3, 9-3, even with Nomar Garciaparra out of the lineup with a right wrist injury. And on a football Sunday, they smashed the Indians by a football score of 23-7. Then, it was back to Cleveland for Monday night’s Game 5, and Martinez would spend the day trying to get his prized right arm healthy enough so that he could pitch when his team needed him most.
Martinez, Red Sox ace from '98-'04: I thought I did something bad because I heard it. I wasn’t just feeling it. I heard it. I heard the pull. Pop. I thought I did something really bad [in Game 1]. It was the back of my shoulder, the lat. I wasn’t able to do a lot of work in between. Actually, the same day of Game 5, that was the first time I had touched a ball afterward.
Dan Duquette, Red Sox general manager, '94-'01: The night before the game, we got off the elevator at the hotel, and he asked me if I thought he should pitch in the game. I said, "Pedro, you’ll have to be the best judge of that. You know yourself, and you know what you’re capable of doing, and you know what you can and can’t do. I know there’s a lot of stress of being in the playoffs and you like to perform when the lights are the brightest, but you’ll have to see how you feel. If you can pitch, pitch. We need you."
Martinez tried to warm up a couple of hours before the game, and it didn’t go very well.
Martinez: When I went to warm up, it was cold and rainy. It was a nasty day. I couldn’t get loose.
Indians outfielder Dave Roberts, who would become a postseason hero for the Red Sox five years later: I just think it was one of those things, we didn’t expect him to pitch.
EARLY HOME RUN DERBY, STARRING JIM THOME
Indians manager Mike Hargrove made the curious decision to start his ace, Bartolo Colon, in Game 4 on three days' rest with his team up, 2-1, in the series. The strategy backfired, leaving Charles Nagy, who had a 4.95 ERA that season, to start Game 5 on three days' rest. Meanwhile, with Martinez unavailable for the start of the game, Bret Saberhagen -- who had shoulder issues of his own -- got the nod for Boston.
Garciaparra, who was on a Hall of Fame path at that point of his career, set the tone for a wild start to the game when he jumped on the first pitch he saw from Nagy for a two-run homer to center in the top of the first. But the Indians stormed back against Saberhagen for three in their half of the first, highlighted by a mammoth two-run shot to right-center by Hall of Famer Thome that traveled a projected 477 feet.
Jason Varitek, Red Sox catcher, '97-'11: You make mistakes to a guy like Thome, they go a long way.
Thome, Indians infielder/DH, '91-'02: I’ll be honest, I felt really good that whole series. And that game, particularly, it was just one of those days where you go to the ballpark and the game is slowing down.
After the Red Sox didn’t score in the top of the second, the Indians came back for two more when Travis Fryman knocked Saberhagen out of the game with a two-run homer. The World Series MVP for the Royals in '85, Saberhagen would make just four more appearances in his career.
Duquette: Saberhagen’s shoulder was trash at that stage. He was taking the ball because he was a competitor, he was a warrior. He gave us what he could give us.
Martinez: Saberhagen is one of my favorites of all time. After knowing him, and knowing the kind of pain he went through to try to pick me up, there’s no way I was going to go down without a fight.
Undeterred by an early 5-2 deficit, the Sox roared back in the top of the third. With runners at second and third and one out, Hargrove made a logical enough decision -- ordering an intentional walk to Garciaparra, who, ailing wrist and all, hit .417 in that series with two homers and a 1.646 OPS in 16 plate appearances.
Sandy Alomar Jr., Indians catcher, '90-'00: We were trying to walk Garciaparra [earlier in the series], and he was swinging at everything and hitting it out of the ballpark. I don’t even know how the heck he was doing it. It seemed like he was hitting balls over his head. He was just exceptional.
Troy O’Leary, who had 28 homers and 103 RBIs that season, made Hargrove pay with a first-pitch grand slam to right-center against Nagy that put Boston back in the lead, 7-5. It was the first grand slam in the postseason history of the Red Sox.
O’Leary, Red Sox outfielder, '95-'01: I was the first one to do that, and then Johnny Damon [in Game 7 of the '04 ALCS at Yankee Stadium] was the second. People don’t mention my name. They always mention Johnny Damon.
Thome: To be honest, I can remember O’Leary getting really big hits, even in the years before that. He was always a guy you could never let your guard down against.
O’Leary: I don’t usually get too emotional when I do something, but I just gave it a little fist pump. The thing about it was, we’re playing Cleveland, and in that ballpark, they could score some runs at any time. I didn’t want to celebrate too hard because the fat lady wasn’t singing. Or the skinny lady. Skinny lady, fat lady, nobody was singing.
O’Leary’s mindset was dead-on. The first three innings were outrageous. Back came Thome with another two-run shot to highlight a three-run third for the Indians against Derek Lowe, who had come on for Saberhagen. It was now 8-7, Indians. It was Thome’s 16th career homer in the postseason, allowing him to surpass Babe Ruth. He would hit one more in his career. The press box announced Thome’s second homer at 431 feet, giving him a combined 908 feet of homers on two swings.
Thome: That one was more to center field. That was one of those special days where you don’t know for sure you’re going to do anything special, but I just felt great, and that’s how it played itself out.
Alomar: We were feeling pretty good, but we were not completely comfortable because we knew they had a great offense also, and we knew there was a possibility Pedro was going to come in.
Thome: It was like, "OK, let’s get as many runs as we can as fast as we can," because we knew there was a chance Pedro could come into the game at some point.
PEDRO'S WARMUP ACT AND GRAND ENTRANCE
The slugfest was too much for Martinez to watch anymore sitting down. He got up from his seat in the dugout and told Williams that he was ready to warm up.
Martinez: When I started seeing the game going in such a wild way, I just said, "I need to do something, and I need to do it now." I guess, between adrenaline, the little medications I took and the situation, it just made me forget.
O’Leary: When Pedro got up to start warming up, you could see their faces start to change.
Martinez: The atmosphere there was electric. They were really out to beat us. And when I saw that, I went to Jimy and I said, "I want to try now. I want to see if I can throw a little bit more." Because when I tried the first time, it was really cold and rainy. The day had kind of calmed down to a point where the weather was more comfortable than it was earlier. I said, "Maybe the medicine kicked in a little bit. Let me try it."
Williams went on to win the AL Manager of the Year Award in ’99, and he clearly had the respect of his players. But Martinez wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Martinez: Jimy said, "No. The orders I have is that if you can pitch, you’re going to pitch toward the end of the game, if we need you to close the game." I said, "You know what, the way this game is going, Jimy, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to let me go try it out there." He goes, "Nope, you don’t have my approval."
Martinez decided the situation was too big to wait for an approval, so he went for it.
Martinez: I said, "No, I’m going to try it now. If I can pitch, you’re either going to have two pitchers on the mound or you’re going to call me in." That’s when I took off for the bullpen. I have all the respect in the world for Jimy, but I needed to do it there, at that point. It wasn’t that Jimy sent me down. Nobody sent me down. I did it on my own.
Duquette: Pedro was clearly in charge because it was his career and only he knew how he was feeling, but he stepped up. When he went out to warm up in the bullpen, that was like a scene out of "Rocky."
Martinez: I just went out there and I told Rod Beck, who was warming up at that moment, I said, "Shooter, if I’m OK, would you please allow me to go out there? I know you’re a veteran. You’re supposed to go in. Would you allow me to go out there?" He goes, "You know what, you carried this team the entire season, if that’s what you want to do, you’re the ace of this staff, you go on and do it."
When Martinez trotted out from the bullpen for the bottom of the fourth, the score was tied, 8-8. Martinez’s fastball had generally been in the upper 90s that season. His first pitch of the night was 91 mph to Alomar. FOX analyst Tim McCarver immediately noted that his arm slot was lower than normal.
Martinez: When I went to the bullpen, I realized that I didn’t have the pop on the fastball. I couldn’t do it. I was feeling the back of the shoulder. But I did throw a couple of changeups and I snapped a breaking ball, and it didn’t bother me as much because I didn’t have to force it so much.
Varitek: He was going to pitch backwards. Threw a lot of breaking balls, a lot of changeups and used his cutter predominantly and kind of hid his fastball a little bit. To be able to morph yourself on the fly like that, and against historically one of the best lineups out there, is pretty amazing.
After Martinez induced a groundout from Alomar for the first of the 18 outs he would record, there was an unfortunate injury delay. Kenny Lofton, Cleveland’s speedy leadoff man and spark plug, hit a grounder to the right side that first baseman Mike Stanley made a diving stop on. Stanley fed to Martinez, who beat Lofton to the bag.
As Lofton dived to try to beat the throw, he rolled over his left shoulder, dislocating it, and had to leave the game. Lofton was a .345 career hitter against Martinez, so this was a damaging blow.
Thome: We’re all family. We’re all brothers. When someone gets taken off the field and you know they’re hurting, it does, it bothers you as a teammate. It was hard to see that happen because Kenny was our catalyst. He could do so many things for our club.
With the Lofton delay over, Martinez went back to his business of carving up the mighty Cleveland lineup. In the fifth, after walking Manny Ramirez, Martinez encountered Thome, who seemed to be the Indians’ only hope of lifting them to victory. After falling behind 3-0 to the dangerous slugger, Martinez came back to punch him out.
Martinez: That was the one guy, I didn’t want to let him beat me. What I did was play around the edges, see if the umpire would kind of bear with me, and I got away with some great pitches. [Thome] was aggressive. He knew he was hot. He wanted to swing. I never left the ball anywhere where he could kind of feel comfortable. Never threw him anything that was the same speed or the same location at any point, and he fell for it.
Varitek: With Jim, particularly, Pedro’s ability to cut the ball up and in on him and be able to change the plane with his breaking ball to open up his changeup was huge.
Thome: He went to pitching. He pitched. He hit his spots. He pitched to the corners. When you can do that and you have the history that Pedro had, it’s one of those things where when you can lock in to areas on the plate, you’re going to get those calls. He’s just got great stuff.
Martinez: When you’re in that situation, do or die, whatever resources you have, you have to use. And that’s how I felt. I felt like I needed to use every resource I had.
UNSUNG HERO O'LEARY STRIKES AGAIN
Even with his soft-serve approach and a compromised right shoulder, Martinez had established his dominance in innings four through six. All he needed was a lead. In the top of the seventh, O’Leary gave him one, again attacking the first pitch he saw and taking reliever Paul Shuey out of the yard for a three-run homer. Hargrove had again set up O’Leary by walking Garciaparra intentionally, this time after the shortstop had gotten ahead 2-0 in the count. O’Leary would finish the game with seven RBIs, tied for the most ever in a postseason game. It has been replicated only once since then, by Enrique Hernandez of the Dodgers in Game 5 of the '17 NLCS against the Cubs.
Varitek: We had finally stopped the bleeding, and then you get a big hit to propel you forward. It had to be completely demoralizing on their end because they weren’t able to get anything going offensively once Pedro entered the game.
Duquette: How would you like to have that night? A grand slam and a three-run jack in a clinching playoff game.
O’Leary: Paul Shuey, his ball is really heavy and it moves a lot. Just like against Nagy, I was going to take three healthy swings, and once again I caught it on the first pitch, and it actually barely got over because I thought it was going to go off the fence.
Duquette: Troy O’Leary’s performance was a personal favorite of mine because I saw him play in high school when I was the scouting director for the Brewers. He was a wide receiver and had a scholarship to Oregon State, but we took him in the 13th round and signed him. That was in 1987. Eight years later, we picked him up in a waiver claim for the Red Sox.
Varitek: Amazing teammate. Great player. Great guy to play with. There’s not many better teammates and class guys to play with than Troy O’Leary.
O’Leary: I watch videos of it and see people in the stands, and their faces are just of disgust. People were crying, too. I felt kind of bad for them. They hated me in Cleveland for that.
Thome: You can feel the silence in the stadium.
Martinez: That’s when I said, "You know what? I need to take over now and probably just set the tone for whoever is coming in. Now I need to get it closer to where Shooter or someone would come in."
SOUNDS OF SILENCE: PEDRO FINISHES THE JOB
With Martinez now in possession of the lead and the Indians showing no signs of resistance, rowdy Jacobs Field went stone-cold silent for the rest of the game.
Martinez: What was amazing was that the Cleveland Indians never realized that I was hurt. They thought I was going to be the 98[-mph] guy that they were used to seeing, and I never changed my approach, and neither did they. It was changeups, breaking balls, little cutters, changeups, and my velocity was never there.
Alomar: By far, he was the best pitcher I ever saw. I faced many other guys, but Pedro had so many pitches and so much spin rate on the ball. I would have loved to see what Trackman would have had on him. The guy had any pitch in the world, and he could throw it at any count.
As Martinez got closer to the finish line, the only question was if his right shoulder would allow him to keep going.
Martinez: By the third inning that I pitched, it was getting tighter and tighter, but the adrenaline kept going up and we started scoring runs, and I thought I’d put us as close as I can for a win. And then Ramon [Martinez, Pedro’s brother] started warming up. I thought I was going to break down at one point because of how bad I pulled the muscle, but the adrenaline and the anxiety of seeing that now we have the lead, the opportunity to win really takes over.
Varitek: He was a little guy that could fight like a lion. His team relied on him to be where we are and he’s not at 100 percent, and he finds a way to get out there, and he dominates on top of it. When he sniffs blood, he goes.
Where Martinez once thought he might give way to big brother Ramon or Beck to finish the game, he emerged for the ninth and had the fairly undaunting trio of pinch-hitter Enrique Wilson, Roberts (who was in for Lofton) and Omar Vizquel to get by to win the series.
Roberts: Once he came in, the whole tone changed. We were just blown away.
Martinez: Once I got through the eighth inning and everybody is quiet, I said, "If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it." I’m just going to go out there, see if I can get one out and if I fade, they’re going to come in and help me. Thank God, first out, boom. Then second out and I’m really close. And here he is, Omar Vizquel.
Martinez struck out Vizquel on four pitches, completing an amazing six innings of no-hit ball. He jumped into Varitek’s arms as the Red Sox celebrated their advancement to the AL Championship Series and their first playoff series win since the '86 ALCS. The only sound that could be heard was that of Red Sox players shrieking with joy in the victory pile.
Martinez: I went after Vizquel. All I wanted was strike one and get the ball back right away. Strike two and get the ball right away. The last pitch was a cutter, coming down and in, and he swung right through it.
Duquette: What was really exciting was the silence in the Cleveland ballpark. Cleveland knocked us out in ’95 and ’98 [in the ALDS]. We squeaked by them this time on the basis of the performance by the future Hall of Famer.
Indians hitting coach Charlie Manuel: He sucked all the wind out of the place. He shut it down. I think everybody realized he did. That was remarkable. That was a first-class lineup he shut down.
Thome: Very tough. You never want to be at your home ballpark and hear silence. That’s one thing in October you don’t want to hear.
Playoff elimination is always gut-wrenching, but this one was tougher than most for the Indians, who had lost the ’95 World Series to the Braves and also in ’97 to the Marlins. They’d make another playoff appearance in '01, losing again in the ALDS. In hindsight, that loss to the Red Sox was the beginning of the end for Cleveland’s strong run from the mid to late ‘90s. Hargrove was dismissed as manager shortly after Game 5.
Thome: I’ll be honest, that made the loss tougher. We had some great runs, and we always believed we were a World Series team. I felt like we put ourselves in position every year to be in those moments. Unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish what our ultimate goal in the ‘90s was, which was to win a World Series.
Alomar: That was the last time Hargrove managed a game in Cleveland. He got let go, it wasn’t even his fault. In 2001, they came back and won the division, but I wasn’t here. In 2000, we were sitting here in this locker room waiting to see if Texas would beat Oakland so we could go in as the Wild Card. We end up being eliminated with our luggage being ready to go. It was an outstanding run we had.
After a quick celebration, in which players repeatedly chanted, "You better sweep us!", the Red Sox had a late-night flight to catch to New York for ALCS Media Day the next day. Thousands of feet above land, Martinez received a painful reminder of what he had just pitched through.
Martinez: I’ve never been in more pain once the plane took off. That’s when I knew I was really, really bad. I thought someone was stabbing me in the back. I got really scared, it was like having a knife going slowly through my back. I started screaming. The entire plane got quiet. The medical staff had to jump on me. At that time, the medicine, probably the two Aleves, went away.
In the ALCS, Boston went down in five games to the eventual World Series champion Yankees, who were in the middle of a three-peat. However, Martinez pitched gallantly in the only win of the series for the Red Sox, outpitching Roger Clemens by a large margin in a 13-1 romp in Game 3. As the sun splashed down on Fenway, fans roared for Pedro, having no idea how much his performance that day (seven shutout innings, two hits, 12 strikeouts) masked his condition.
Varitek: So much of that goes to his competitiveness. He’s dealing with an injury, and he finds a way to still be elite. Elite, when you’re probably at 60 percent, 50 percent.
Martinez: I remember I had to face Roger Clemens at Fenway with the worst pain I’ve ever pitched in during a game. And we beat them really bad. It was unfortunate we weren’t able to do it in consecutive games or more than once in that series.
Game 5 of the '99 ALDS was the start of a trend of thrilling postseason comebacks by the Red Sox. In the '03 ALDS against Oakland, the Sox again roared back to win in five games after falling behind 0-2. In the ’04 ALCS, they took it to another level, becoming the first -- and still only -- team ever to overcome an 0-3 deficit in a postseason series, and doing it against the Yankees no less. And en route to the second of four championships they’d win in a 15-year-window, the ’07 Sox roared back from 1-3 deficit against those Indians again to win the ALCS.
Varitek: It started that night in Cleveland, and it was led from our manager on down. Our message had always been from him, "Don’t let us win one." He always instilled that belief. I’m a firm believer that that ability to come back that night is why this organization has had so much success since. It builds over time. And now you have the history and the confidence that you have done it before. … Without that group that did that in ‘99, and that leadership from Pedro to take that ball, who knows what happens. Those are steppingstones to us winning in ’04, to us winning in ’07, and ’13 and beyond.
Williams would manage the Red Sox for two more years, but he was let go late in the 2001 season as the team slumped. After 1999, Martinez had more brilliance in him, winning his third and final Cy Young Award the next season and finishing second to Barry Zito in a controversial vote in ’02. But Martinez doesn’t flinch when asked if Game 5 in Cleveland had an impact on the rest of his career.
Martinez: It did. That was the game that actually developed the rest of the shoulder problems for me. That’s what got the 98 mph lowered to 90-whatever, whatever I was. That injury actually took a big chunk of my career. I did more damage to my shoulder because of that. I don’t regret it at all. I had a beautiful career and I was able to come back. I don’t regret it one bit. I’m extremely proud to have done it. I’d never suggest it to anybody with a bright future, but I’m so proud to have done it.
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.