Nationals Fall to Mets in Rookie Martin's Starting Debut

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

This season, at least before he appeared for the first time in a Washington Nationals uniform, J.D. Martin sufficed as this organization's best story -- a pitching Pecos Bill, the baddest pitcher of the minor league hinterlands, taming all opponents, disobeying all odds, possibly riding into visiting towns on a mountain lion. Start after start, Martin dominated with Class AAA Syracuse. His numbers were tall-tale material. The Nats blogosphere loved him, and vouched for his promotion, pronto. Finally, acting general manager Mike Rizzo agreed. It was time to see John Dale Martin.

Seeing sometimes interferes with believing, though. Major league baseball has a special way of downsizing the great hopes, and when Martin took the mound Monday night at Nationals Park, the 26-year-old rookie's recent track record of infallibility was overwritten by a flawed outing, one that triggered a 6-2 Washington loss to the New York Mets. Done after four innings, Martin gave up eight hits and five runs.

Wearing No. 60, Martin threw the first pitch of his major league career at 7:06 p.m., and that alone qualified as a landmark. On a team stocked with a half-dozen A-grade and B-grade pitching prospects -- homegrown 22- and 23-year-olds -- Martin was something different: a soft thrower, drafted eight years ago by another organization, already ground up and re-formed by the rigors of professional baseball. Already, he'd dealt with reconstructive elbow surgery. Just this offseason, he'd been released by Cleveland.

Said Martin: "I always had faith."

Finally given a chance to pitch to big leaguers, Martin couldn't summon the command that got him here. With a fastball in the high-80s, Martin depends on dead-on accuracy. With Syracuse, he had it.

"He was a guy we went to every five days," former Syracuse teammate and current Washington reliever Tyler Clippard said, "and every time he toed the rubber we were like, 'We're going to get a "W" tonight.' He's that kind of pitcher. He locates the ball better than anybody I've ever played with."

Here, jittery and nervous, Martin was throwing too many balls up. And even a foundering team such as the Mets -- weakened by injuries, losers in nine of 13 entering this series -- doesn't have much sympathy for that. After 49 pitches, just 12 batters into the evening, Martin had already allowed seven hits, equaling his high from any of his previous 10 starts with the Chiefs.

The Mets ripped at Martin with singles and doubles. The very first, from leadoff hitter Angel Pagán, was inauspicious: The center fielder took a late half-swing at a Martin curveball. It trickled down the third base line, riding the continental divide, needing just a little breeze or luck to roll foul. Third baseman Willie Harris stood back, watching, hoping. It kept rolling, never touching the chalk. Pagán had a single. By inning's end, David Murphy and Jeff Francoeur had pounded doubles, and New York led 2-0.

"I was just trying to keep calm," Martin said, "but everything was kind of up in the beginning."

New York continued its barrage into the second, stringing together three two-out singles, each scoring another run. By the sixth hit of the game, Clippard was already warming up. The inning ended, Washington was down 5-0, and the J.D. Martin story didn't feel quite so exotic.

In any proper wreck, some good stuff floats to the surface -- Martin's final two innings were scoreless, and Clippard followed with three no-hit innings -- but all that was overwhelmed by the deeper problem. The Nationals have now lost six in a row, 11 of 12 and 20 of 25. Really, their whole season is an extended losing streak. Much as they relish the chance to test out some prospects -- Martin was the fifth rookie to start a game this season -- they're also losing to teams with prospects, or worse, teams composed of backups and spare parts.

The Mets are such a team. Decimated by injuries, much as Washington was in 2008, the Mets entered this game with a lineup worthy of Class AAA Buffalo. Gone were Carlos Beltrán (right knee bruise), Carlos Delgado (right hip impingement) and José Reyes (right calf tendinitis). Count J.J. Putz and Billy Wagner, and the Mets had a combined 16 all-star appearances on the disabled list.

They also had a starting pitcher, Liván Hernández (19.29 ERA in his two most recent starts), on the verge of losing his spot in the rotation. Thankfully, he got to face the Nationals, the one team he controls like an investor. His previous two starts against Washington this year accounted for 16 innings pitched and one earned run. Monday night, he scattered five hits across seven innings, and gave up only two runs in the fourth on a Josh Bard double.

"If you chase his pitches," Adam Dunn said of Hernández, "it's going to be a long night."

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