Promising Effort Falls Short for Martis, Nationals

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

MIAMI, Sept. 12 -- On nights like this, all sides learn. The pitcher, making just his second major league start, learned from his one mistake, and promised it wouldn't happen in his third start. The manager and pitching coach -- watching, evaluating -- learned about the kid's talent, and what they saw convinced them that Shairon Martis will have many more games to learn, and likely many more games to impress.

The Washington Nationals, in the final weeks of a sinking season, will take games like this. Sure, Washington's offense hit the skids and couldn't catch up with any of Florida's four pitchers, including starter Scott Olsen. But more important, Florida -- with one of the most potent lineups in baseball -- couldn't catch up with Martis, 21, a September call-up whose trial month in the Nationals' rotation doubles as a referendum on his potential. In Friday night's 2-1 loss to Florida at Dolphin Stadium, the Nationals saw it. They saw nine Martis strikeouts, including the side in the fifth inning. They saw one rookie fielding mistake that allowed Florida's go-ahead run, but they saw composure, even flashes of dominance. At least on this night, the "kid" -- Manager Manny Acta's word -- looked little like a kid.

There are no true answers about a pitcher who's only been a big leaguer for two weeks -- especially when he's pitched 10 innings total -- but this much Washington has learned.

Martis can keep his pitches low, the lynchpin of his success (five innings, two hits, two runs, one earned run) against the Marlins.

He's shaky no longer. "I don't feel nervous anymore," Martis said.

He has three quality pitches, including a fastball that catcher Wil Nieves said slid "downhill," a curveball Nieves called "impressive" and a change-up he called "great." On this night, that change was Martis's go-to pitch.

"I haven't seen him change anything when he's out there in the situation," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "He looks exactly the same, doesn't look any different facing Scott Olsen as he does Mike Jacobs. And you know, I see the same face. The same body action. The same mechanics."

Said Acta: "It's only been two starts, but he has looked very good because of the fact that he throws quality strikes with good stuff. He doesn't need Randy to be going out there every inning to straighten him out. We're impressed with the young man."

He hardly threw a pitch all night that topped 92 mph, but here, speed didn't matter. His pitches were dancing the salsa. His curve broke. His fastballs cut it close to the edges, then ducked away. Dan Uggla struck out once on a fastball that whirled toward his hands and once on a breaking ball bit for the dirt. Jeremy Hermida struck out once waving at a change on the outside corner, later at a change beyond the outside corner. In the second, third and fourth innings, Martis struck out two batters apiece. That streak ended in the fifth -- but only because he struck out the side.

Martis, then, entered the sixth with a 1-1 tie, and that's when he made the one mistake that created the difference in this game. He issued a leadoff walk to Hanley Ramírez, who then stole second. That's trouble, but Martis should have escaped it: He snagged a comebacker from the next batter, turned toward Ramírez and saw him frozen between second and third. But rather than run toward Ramírez, Martis threw to second base, where Cristian Guzmán was covering. That throw prompted Ramírez, among the league's best base runners, to sprint to third. Guzmán's rushed throw toward Ryan Zimmerman (ruled an error) skipped past the bag, and Ramírez bolted for home -- giving Florida a 2-1 lead and Martis an unearned run.

"It's part of the learning process," Acta said. "The kid should have never thrown the ball. He should have run over to Hanley, make him commit either way and then make the throw. But you know, he's 21. You have to learn those things."

But Acta liked what he saw. Against the Florida offense -- a boom-bust lineup that leads baseball in strikeouts and ranks third in home runs -- Martis exposed the weakness and got burnt just once by the strength (in the fourth, from Jorge Cantú). Even when he got in trouble in the sixth, walking Cantú, his final batter, he kept the same, blank expression on his face. Acta removed him after that walk, patted him on the back and sent him out of the humid Florida night.

"Yeah, I have very good confidence," Martis later said. "If I keep doing it like this, I feel I'll get better and better."

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