Martis Pitches Complete Game in Nats' Win Over Cardinals

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Exactly two hours after throwing the first pitch of a game that redrew the boundaries for his career, Shairon Martis thought about how to finish it. Only three outs separated Martis from a complete-game victory. But no longer could Martis play down the moment: The ninth inning was rarefied territory. His age, his personal pitching history, even the team name across his uniform screamed as much.

For as long as Manny Acta had managed this franchise, no Washington Nationals starter had finished a ninth inning. Martis -- a 22-year-old who, in eight previous big league starts, had never exceeded 6 1/3 innings -- plotted a way to become the first.

Just before the final inning of Washington's 6-1 victory at Nationals Park yesterday afternoon, Acta encouraged Martis to finish things. Both the manager and the pitcher craved the chance to make it happen. The manager sustained the opportunity by allowing Martis to bat in the bottom of the seventh, even though his pitch count already hung at 88. The right-hander enabled the bid by throwing just seven pitches in the eighth -- still flashing a 92 mph fastball.

At one point, Acta told pitching coach Randy St. Claire, "Hey, right now he's still got as good a stuff as anybody we're going to bring out of the bullpen."

Martis, meantime, performed the math. He knew the team didn't want his pitch count to exceed 110. That gave him 15 pitches to earn the final three outs. Fifteen pitches to throw Washington's first nine-inning complete game since Aug. 15, 2006.

Hours earlier, Martis had sensed the chance for something special. A pitcher throws enough games to detect every subtlety of his arm's temperament, and this was a day when everything felt perfect. Maybe you get a feeling like this once every year, or twice in three years. While warming up in the bullpen, Martis hit every spot -- inside corner, outside corner, no matter. Everything stayed low. It reminded him of the day in March 2006, when he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in the World Baseball Classic.

Catcher Wil Nieves, helping Martis warm up before the game, had been behind the plate for almost every one of the right-hander's outings this spring, when he emerged from nowhere to crack the starting rotation.

"And he was good then," Nieves said, "but today he was unbelievable. To do what he did against this team, everything had to be working. Even in the bullpen, everything was nice. . . . When I saw him there, I told him, 'Just keep doing that. Don't do more.' "

Pitch by pitch, Martis lived up to his highest hopes. He zipped through the first inning on six pitches. Fifteen more pitches, and he was done with the second. He was rolling through the lineup with assembly-line speed: Through four, no St. Louis batter had reached base. Only two even saw a three-ball count. Then, during the fourth inning, Martis thought for the first time about a no-hitter; he saw those zeroes on the scoreboard -- heady stuff for a guy who came in with a 6.20 ERA, opponents batting .312 against him. But in the same moment that Martis contemplated a no-hitter, he also recognized that it wouldn't happen.

"Once I saw that, you know they're gonna break it up," Martis said. "When you don't know you have one, that's when you throw it."

Sure enough, St. Louis punctured perfection in the fifth inning, when Yadier Molina, the 15th batter of the day, lined Martis's 56th pitch into center. Two innings later, the shutout was gone as well, thanks to a solo home run from Colby Rasmus. But by then, Martis didn't worry. He already had received enough help, both from his defense and his lineup, to build a cushion.

Indeed, the Nationals picked a good day for error-free baseball and timely hitting. Second baseman Anderson Hernández pulled off a full-extension diving stop on a grounder in the first. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman turned a double play with a diving catch in the eighth.

Though St. Louis pitcher Joel Piñeiro was sharp, Washington hurt him when given the opportunity. Like that moment in the fifth, right after St. Louis first baseman Chris Duncan dropped a Zimmerman foul pop. Given a second chance, Zimmerman pounded a single through the hole between shortstop and third. Next batter, Adam Dunn, scorched a three-run homer into the second deck in right, his seventh of the year.

After two further insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth -- "obviously getting that cushion there really helped for the soul because of the way things have been going," Acta said -- Martis walked out for the ninth. There, he'd face the St. Louis lineup for the fourth time through. He rebounded from a 2-0 start against the leadoff man, Skip Schumaker, by throwing five consecutive strikes (two fouls), the last a slider that triggered a swinging strikeout. After a Rasmus single, Martis hoped for a double play. Instead, he induced an easy pop-up to the catcher -- the second out. The final batter was Duncan, who swung at a high fastball, 91 mph, and skied it to right. That was Martis's 110th pitch of the game, and his 79th strike.

"Moments like this, games like this, they're worth five of those losses that we had before," Acta said. "Because this is what we're working for here -- to develop these type of kids."

Said Martis, "I never thought I'd throw a complete game, but now I've had it, I know there's more coming."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company