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Roger-Pedro: A matchup for the ages

Were it merely an American League Championship Series meeting between the Yankees and Red Sox, Saturday's Game 3 would be attraction enough.

Toss in the fact that the two starting pitchers are destined for Cooperstown, and you have the potential for a historic matchup. In a rivalry which needs no further embellishment, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez provide it anyway.

Four years ago, the two met under amazingly similar circumstances -- Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS, also on a Saturday.

Now, it's Roger vs. Pedro: The Sequel.

"When you're in the dugout,'' said Red Sox manager Grady Little, "all you're focused on is the game on the field. You're not as caught up in the historical significance. But this is a game that could end up on ESPN Classic -- immediately.''

Even Clemens, who has a contrarian streak so deep he could debate your contention that the earth is round, acknowledged the meeting has extra appeal.

"I think it's a great matchup,'' he said. "This is what playoff baseball is all about. You're going to have great matchups. If Pedro is on and I'm on, it's going to be exciting. If one of us doesn't make pitches, it's not going to be that great of a game. It will be great for one team or the other.''

Clemens knows of what he speaks. In the first ALCS showdown with Martinez, Clemens was battered for five runs in two innings as the Sox routed the Yankees 13-1, for their only victory of that series.

"I don't remember a lot of it,'' said Clemens. "I just know when I was out of the game, it got way out of hand. I don't really dwell on those situations. I've had bad games before.''

For Red Sox fans filled with disappointment over that series outcome, beating Clemens handily provided some measure of satisfaction. Game 3 was the consolation prize.

This time, there's the feeling that the two teams are more evenly matched -- the Sox and Yanks have played 21 times since the end of spring training, with the Yankees holding a slim 11-10 edge. That competitiveness makes Game 3 all the more significant, while at the same time, places the pitching matchup in its proper context.

This isn't a sideshow, an event unto itself the way it was in 1999. Back then, the pairing of the two was a sort of referendum on the Boston front office, which allowed Clemens to leave via free agency, then, in effect, replaced him with Martinez a year later.

This time, Roger-Pedro: The Sequel is part of a bigger battle.

"We're not in a boxing ring,'' said Clemens. "I've got nine guys that have to go to the plate against Pedro and they'll have to break him down and execute. I'll have my own game plan as far as how I'm going to try to break down this lineup that the Red Sox have, which is a very good lineup.''

While Clemens and Martinez combined to win 31 games this season, neither is the same pitcher he was four autums ago. Clemens, a physical marvel at 41, has begrudgingly made some concessions to his advancing years, relying more on a split-fingered fastball than his trademark four-seamer. Still, Clemens is fully capable of a 95-mph fastball when he needs it most.

If Clemens has successfully defied the calendar, then Martinez has somehow managed to overcome his slight frame. It's safe to say that never has a pitcher so small thrown so hard for so long.

Even as the Red Sox carefully managed his workload and pitch count, Martinez finished one behind Esteban Loiaza for the AL strikeout title, all the more impressive considering he missed a month with a muscle pull in his back. His strikeout-to-innings pitched ratio was the best in the league.

But like a card player waiting for the proper opening, Martinez regularly threw in the high 80s and low 90s, while mixing in a knee-buckling curveball and a changeup still regarded as the best in the game.

"He has so much confidence in himself,'' said teammate Derek Lowe, "that when he's pitching at 88 mph, he feels the same as when he's pitching at 95 mph. He knows he's going to get you out.''

Much of the game may be determined by how well each starter handles his emotions. Clemens has been known to overthrow -- as he did in 1999 -- and let the ballpark's atmosphere get the best of him.

Martinez is prone to occasional frustration when patient teams make him work and ratchet his pitch count further.

"(The Yankees) are really good at making the pitcher work,'' said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace, "and fouling off that pitch, that 1-and-2 pitch, that 2-and-2 pitch.''

A sense of finality pervades the matchup. One way or another, this will surely be Clemens' final appearance in Fenway Park. And with Martinez eligible for free agency after the 2004 season, Saturday stands as potentially the last postseason game he'll ever pitch in a Red Sox uniform.

Two storied franchises. Two pitching immortals whose greatness seem somehow magnified -- not reduced -- by their athletic mortality.

"This,'' said Lowe, "is not something you'll see every day.''

Twice in four years, though, seems like a gift for baseball fans.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.