NEW YORK -- Pedro Martinez still conjures up images of that near-perfect Sunday in Los Angeles, when every fastball he threw whispered over the corner and his changeup broke so crazily the TV announcers kept calling it a curveball.
That's the sort of game pitchers dream about -- everything works, nothing is hittable and the outs turn into a steady, intoxicating blur. Talk about perfect-world scenarios: Martinez didn't have a great fastball (or even a better-than-average one), never once reaching 90 mph, but there he was, beating the Dodgers with swings and misses at 86-88 mph.
"That was the crazy thing -- anytime I needed to throw the ball by one of their hitters, I could," Pedro said. "Too bad it didn't work out."
No one has to remind Martinez about that brush with history. After 22 straight outs, after almost throwing the Mets' first-ever no-hitter, Pedro lost a heartbreaking 2-1 decision -- a microcosm of how competitive the Mets have become in the post-Art Howe era, but how frustrating the road to playoff contention still is.
The good news? The Mets are only 2½ games out of the wild-card lead. The more sobering reality, however, is that the Mets have to climb over four teams to get to October. If anyone can lead them, it's Pedro, who is holding the National League to a .192 average, second only to Roger Clemens. Martinez is also keeping opponents to a .234 on-base percentage, the lowest in the NL, while he's third in strikeouts and among the top 10 in wins and ERA.
It's a powerful cocktail, leading to an obvious conclusion: Even if Martinez doesn't throw as hard as he did in, say, 1997, and even if he isn't what he was in 2002-03, Pedro has already given the Mets a healthy return on their four-year, $53 million investment.
Assistant GM Jim Duquette spoke for the entire organization when he said, "Pedro is one guy who's definitely held up his end of the bargain." Once every five days, the Mets are unbeatable, or at least they feel that way.
So who can explain the pervasive feeling of mission-not-accomplished at Shea? Maybe it's because the Mets failed to exploit the NL East's remarkable parity in the first half of the season, when the top spot could've been theirs. Maybe because Mike Cameron is now lost for the season after that gruesome collision with Carlos Beltran.
Or maybe it's because Beltran, who has otherwise been a disappointment with a .272 average. Despite hitting .292 with runners in scoring position, Beltran is in a deep home-run drought. GM Omar Minaya is doing his best to give Beltran a wide berth, insisting, "it's not about one guy here," but someone has to lead on the four other days when Pedro is in the dugout.
Even when he's on the mound, throwing that magical changeup, the Mets often fail to rise to Martinez's level. After a 7-1 start, Martinez has a still-respectable 12 wins, but Duquette says, "That could've been 18 or 19 by now." The problem is partly the bullpen -- overall, the Mets have lost eight games in which they've taken a lead into the eighth inning -- and the offense's relatively sluggish performance this year.
The Mets receive virtually no production at first base and are handicapped by leadoff hitter Jose Reyes' sub-.300 on-base percentage. While they're sixth in the NL in runs, they're seventh in slugging percentage and tied for 13th in on-base percentage.
The real culprit, however, is the Mets' abominable record on the road. They lose more than 60 percent of their games away from Shea, which is sure to doom their playoff hopes. The Mets have a critical seven-game road trip next week against the Diamondbacks and Giants, who are a combined 24 games under .500. Team officials consider it imperative to go at least 5-2.
Martinez will pitch Saturday at Shea against the Nationals and again next Thursday in Arizona. It goes without saying the Mets must win both games, but Cliff Floyd says the team's dependence on their ace can also be unhealthy.
"You can't think Pedro is going to save the world just because he's one of the greatest pitchers ever," the outfielder said. "As a hitter, you can't think, 'All we have to do is get him one or two runs and he'll be fine.' If you think that way, that's all you're going to get. It's the other pitcher who feels the pressure going up against Pedro -- it should be easy to score 15 runs against a guy feeling that pressure."
Case in point was Martinez's loss to the Dodgers' Brad Penny, who, Floyd said, "will give up four runs in his sleep and he doesn't mind. But against Pedro, he knew it was different. [Penny] usually comes running off the mound [between innings] talking smack. This time he didn't say a word to me."
Still, Martinez is no stranger to late-season pressure, and if the Mets need him to pave the road to the promised land, he's ready -- even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Referring to the second coast-to-coast flight in a week, Martinez said, "This is doable. Not ideal, but doable. One way or another, we have to beat up on the little teams. If we don't, forget it."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.