By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
NEW YORK, Sept. 18 -- Only a season of unrelenting ugliness permitted J.D. Martin, age 26, to become a major league baseball player this year. By the time he joined the Washington Nationals in late July, promoted from Class AAA Syracuse, Martin was filling a void no healthy team should have. Months earlier, Martin was 10th or 12th -- maybe even lower -- on the organization's starting pitcher depth chart. If Martin has since become a feel-good story, one must first forget the circumstances that brought him here.
Deep into what will soon be a 100-loss season, Martin has come to represent -- perhaps better than anybody -- both its desperation and its faint silver lining. He is not a star. He probably never will be. He is part of what General Manager Mike Rizzo calls "the inventory," and if that conveys an industrial arms-as-widgets mind-set, it's only because so many arms have already been cast aside.
The Nationals didn't win Friday night because of Martin; in fact, he looked unsteady for much of the evening, falling behind hitters and relying on stellar defense. What's more, with a near-destructive Mike MacDougal ninth inning, his performance nearly became an afterthought. Still, the Nationals defeated the Mets, 6-5, at Citi Field, and Martin did just enough to help break the three-game losing streak. He went 5 1/3 innings, allowing just two runs on seven hits. More noteworthy, Martin picked up his fifth win, tying him for second-best on the team with Shairon Martis, who hasn't pitched since June. On a team that's used 30 pitchers this year -- 19 with ERAs above 5.00 -- Martin (4.21 ERA) is one of four with a winning record.
"He's done a little better each time out," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.
On Friday, he required some help. He required, for run support, a pair of two-run homers against Mike Pelfrey -- first from Ryan Zimmerman (his 30th of the year), later from Josh Bard. He required a clutch against-the-wall leaping catch from left fielder Josh Willingham in the third, the frame where Martin was at his worst. He also required his teammates to clean up a sixth-inning mess, because when Martin was pulled, runners stood on first and third with one out -- and Washington led just 4-2. After walking Fernando Tatis to load the bases, lefty Ron Villone got Wilson Valdez to line to left. Carlos Beltrán tagged from third, but Willingham's throw beat him home, and Bard, moving to his left, applied a sweeping tag, completing the inning-ending double play.
"Unbelievable," Martin called the defense.
Martin's win, most of all, required some pull-your-hair-out assistance from the closer MacDougal, who nearly extinguished a four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. With the lead 6-2, the trouble kept growing. Back-to-back walks. Two singles. A throwing error that kept the game alive. Finally, New York crept to within a run, when Jeff Francoeur, with runners on second and third, knocked a grounder back to the mound. The ball knocked MacDougal's mitt off, but he recovered, picked it up and tossed to first, ending the game.
"I'm a little frustrated that I didn't make it easier than I did," MacDougal said, "but we came out with a win, and that's the ultimate goal."
That play saved the night for Washington, and it saved the win for Martin. Making his 12th big league start, Martin started fast, holding the Mets scoreless through two, but in the third, he lost command of his breaking ball. He faced seven hitters, falling behind five of them. No surprise, four of those five got hits. The other, David Wright, ripped a would-be double to left-center that required Willingham's snag. But after that two-run third, Martin allowed no further damage. Since Aug. 9 (eight starts), Martin is 5-2 with a 3.15 ERA.
Martin will get the chance next year to compete for a rotation spot, but he could just as easily end up in Class AAA. Healthy organizations need guys like Martin at that level. Because he throws just 88 mph, he has little margin for error. To be effective, he must overachieve.
"But so far," said one NL scout who's watched Martin this year, "he's pitched above his talent."
"My goal [originally] was just to get as many innings as I can, every outing try go as deep as possible, and really just keep us in the game every time," Martin said. "Getting five wins is really just a bonus for me. That's awesome."