BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Martinez Is Older and Wiser : American League: Indians' starter for tonight's game is 40 and has a bad knee, but mentally he is better than ever.


The torn cartilage in his left knee will require an operation after the season. And the sore right elbow has made it almost impossible for him to recover from a start after the normal four days' rest.

It appears age has finally caught up with Cleveland Indian pitcher Dennis Martinez and is running neck and neck with the 40-year-old down the homestretch of his career.

But even with all the physical breakdowns, Martinez is more suited to win a playoff game today than he was in 1983, when he was young and strong and pitching for the Baltimore Orioles' World Series championship team.

"I was fine physically in 1983, but mentally I was a waste," said Martinez, who will oppose Seattle ace Randy Johnson in Game 6 of the American League championship series tonight in the Kingdome.

"This time, I've been strong mentally, but physically I'm a waste. But that shows me that the mental part of the game has more impact than the physical part, in some ways. I think that's why I've been able to handle the physical problems--because I've been strong mentally."

Martinez was such a wreck in 1983 that then-Baltimore manager Joe Altobelli didn't even use him in the championship series against the Chicago White Sox or the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, going with rookie Mike Boddicker instead.

The right-hander, who had gone 14-7 for the Orioles in 1979, 16-11 in '78, 14-5 in '81 and 16-12 in '82, had lost his job, but it wasn't his fastball or slider that had deserted him. It was his self-control.

Martinez's life then was essentially a wild pitch to the backstop, alcohol having taken hold of him like no manager or pitching coach could.

Few knew at the time, but Martinez was an alcoholic, and his Oriole career deteriorated to the point that, in 1986, Baltimore dumped him, sending Nicaragua's favorite son to the Montreal Expos for a player to be named, who turned out to be infielder Rene Gonzales.

But Martinez sobered up by 1987 and did a masterful restoration job on his career, winning 100 games and compiling a 3.06 earned-run average for the Expos between 1986-93.

He appeared in three consecutive All-Star games, from 1990-92, and reached the pitcher's pinnacle on July 28, 1991, when he threw a perfect game in Dodger Stadium.

Signed by Cleveland as a free agent in December of 1993, Martinez has been the Indians' best pitcher the last two seasons, going 11-6 with a 3.52 ERA in '94 and winning his first nine decisions en route to a 12-5, 3.08-ERA season in '95.

Martinez has anchored a solid starting rotation that is often overshadowed by the Indians' powerful offense but has shined in the playoffs. He, Orel Hershiser, Charles Nagy and Ken Hill have combined for a 5-1 record and 1.46 ERA in eight postseason starts.

"If you look at our club, most of the money is in position players," Cleveland General Manager John Hart said. "When it came time to build a rotation, we were looking for experienced guys who knew how to keep the ball down and could benefit from the type of offensive support we have.

"We don't have a power rotation, but we have what I would call cerebral pitching, supported by a power bullpen."

Martinez, who mixes a sinker and slider with an average fastball, will need to be cerebral tonight against Johnson, the 6-foot-10 left-hander whose fastball has been clocked at 99 m.p.h.

Johnson, who will again be pitching with three days' rest and the Mariners on the brink of elimination, has already won two postseason games this season. Martinez does not have a decision in five playoff appearances, including two this season.

"It would be the best gift I could ever have in baseball," he said.

Even better than his perfect game?

"Well, I don't know about that."

Martinez might reconsider if he could be on the Kingdome mound when the Indians clinch their first World Series berth in 41 years. That's the opportunity he has tonight, because Cleveland has a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven series.

"One of the dreams I have in my baseball career is to win a postseason game," Martinez said. "I think the best thing for me to do, though, is keep the team close and give them a chance to win. Even though I'd like to win personally, [the team's] winning is the bottom line."

The Indians, who had a 100-44 record and ran away with the Central Division title, have been heavily favored to win the pennant; and the Mariners, perennial underdogs who came back from an 0-2 deficit to beat the Yankees in the first round, are considered the overachievers in this championship series.

But those labels don't seem to apply to the Game 6 pitching matchup. Johnson is the American League's dominant pitcher, and Martinez will be the one relying on guts and guile.

"I look at it as a challenge," Martinez said. "I've always been the underdog. I've never been the favorite. I've always been the one that nobody believed in, but I've liked it that way. It motivates me more."

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