Right-hander Rafael Martin made his Major League debut on Wednesday in impressive fashion: striking out five consecutive Red Sox batters in two scoreless innings of work. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Martin became the first reliever to strikeout five consecutive batters in his debut since Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Pete Richert did it on April 12, 1962. He is also the first Nationals pitcher (starter or reliever) to strikeout at least five straight batters in his MLB debut since Stephen Strasburg struck out seven straight on June 8, 2010.
Interview by Charlie Slowes
What was going through your mind during your big league debut?
It was an adrenaline rush — it felt good to get out there finally. It’s been a long wait to make my debut, something that I will never forget. The five strikeouts, it just happens. I didn’t really plan on striking everybody out, I was just throwing fastballs trying to have them put them in play and things worked out.
Did the Red Sox have trouble seeing your sinker ball?
Escobar told me, “Hey the shadows are bad, just throw it, let it go.” So I just kept pounding fastballs, not trying to cheat anybody, see what happens. He was saying, “I can’t see the ball, so I don’t think they can either,” so I just kept pounding the zone.
How did it feel to debut in such a historic ballpark like Fenway Park?
Debut, Jackie Robinson Day, the (somber anniversary) of (the Boston Marathon bombings), it was really neat, something l will never forget.
You’ve taken a unique path to the big leagues. How did it all happen?
Out of high school, I didn’t even play varsity until my senior year. (I was) definitely a late bloomer. Out of high school, I worked construction for five years, and then I played a game in Tecate, Mexico and a scout saw me and invited me for a tryout. I went out there, tried out, they (the Mexican League team) signed me, three years later the Nationals bought my contract, and five years later I get to make my debut. So it was definitely a long story — not your typical story — but I’m finally here and it’s awesome.
Did you play any kind of baseball during those years you were working construction?
I was playing Sunday ball, like rec leagues. All of my buddies from high school are guys that I played with. I played a lot of softball during the week too, two to three times a week, slow pitch softball. It was fun, I was enjoying it and making good money working construction.
Was it difficult to battle injuries through your first few years?
In 2010, my first year here, I did really well. In 2011, I had some issues coming off of my first real offseason because I played year round in Mexico. I came back to Spring Training, had little issues getting back on track. In 2012 I got the big league (training camp) invite and just kind of struggled out of the gate. I went to Syracuse, cold weather, had some issues, shoulder problems, surgeries in 2012 and 2013 and last year I was finally healthy. It paid dividends, and all my hard work paid off.
Did Spring Training help prepare you for your debut?
Finally, after three years it was the first Spring Training where I could come in healthy and ready to give it all I’ve got and fight for a job. It was a very short chance but I had to open some eyes and show them what I could do.
What was the day like when you finally got called up this year?
It was a save situation. I was the closer there and I didn’t come in. He had Evan Meek pitch, and I was kind of weirded out by it…I was like, “Why was I not closing this game?” I didn’t think much of it, after the game I just gave high fives to the guys in the clubhouse, and the pitching coach, Bob Milacki called me, he was like, “Come here,” into the office and (Syracuse Manager) Billy Gardner just said. “Hey, you’re going to Boston.” I kind of looked around at everybody like, “Are you guys joking, what’s going on?” It was kind of unique. I was really surprised by it.
How was the trip to Boston?
I left at 6 a.m. from Lehigh (Pa.), layover in Philly, and got into Boston around 10 a.m. I waited around the hotel (until they made the move official) and then I got the call that I could go to the ballpark. I was kind of like, “All right let’s do this.” It was fun.
How did your family react to you moving up to the big leagues?
(My wife) had to drive from Scranton to Lehigh Sunday night, Tuesday morning drive to Lehigh to Boston and after the game Boston to here (D.C.), I kind of felt bad for her but it’s adrenaline for her too. Hopefully (the rest of my family) makes it out Tuesday for the game, and they can enjoy this with me too. My dad is one of those guys who doesn’t break easily, and I got him to tear up so it made me proud too.
by Mike Feigen
What to Watch for: Philadelphia Phillies (3-6) at Washington Nationals (3-6)
April 16–19, Nationals Park
What a difference a day makes.
The Nationals found an offensive rhythm from the very beginning of their 10-5 victory at Fenway Park on Wednesday afternoon, tagging Boston starter Wade Miley with two runs in the first inning and six more in the third. Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore belted their first home runs of the year, Bryce Harper doubled in the Nationals’ first run and reached safely three times, while Wilson Ramos cleared the bases with a three-run double during the six-run frame. Starter Gio Gonzalez, rookie Rafael Martin, and closer Drew Storen made the lead stand up, giving the Nationals a happy flight back to D.C. for their seven-game homestand against the Phillies and Cardinals.
Meanwhile, the Phillies come in losers of four straight after winning a pair of games against the Nationals last Friday and Saturday. Philadelphia was swept at Citi Field in New York, mustering just six runs in the three-game series.
Both teams could use a series win to gain their footing in what has started out as a wide-open National League East race. The Braves and Mets are both 6-3 in the early going, while the Nationals, Phillies and Marlins are three games back at 3-6. That said, it may be most important to avoid dropping three of four or getting swept this weekend. Nobody can win a division in April, but they can make it a lot more difficult on themselves with a slow start.
THURSDAY, 7:05: RHP Doug Fister (0-0, 0.00) vs. LHP Cole Hamels (0-1, 3.75)
FRIDAY, 7:05: RHP Max Scherzer (0-1, 0.66) vs. RHP Sean O’Sullivan (0-0, 3.00)
SATURDAY, 1:05: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 8.64) vs. RHP Aaron Harang (1-1, 0.73)
SUNDAY, 1:35: RHP Stephen Strasburg (0-1, 5.06) vs. RHP David Buchanan (0-1, 18.00)
Perhaps the top advantage the Phillies have entering the four-game set at Nationals Park is that their ace is on the mound in game one. Veteran left-hander Cole Hamels allowed just one run on two hits against the Nats on April 11, also the last time Philadelphia tasted victory. After that, right-handers Sean O’Sullivan, Aaron Harang and David Buchanan provide their own challenges against the Nats’ right-handed-heavy lineup.
All four of the Nationals starters in the series could lay claim to the individual matchup advantage, though the Phillies are more left-handed dominant at the plate and pose threats of their own. However, Fister and Scherzer allowed just one combined run last Saturday and Sunday in Philadelphia, while Zimmermann and Strasburg had to face the much more dynamic Boston Red Sox attack.
The Phillies still have many of the dangerous names Nats fans will remember, but they’ve scored the fewest runs in baseball to this point, with 22 tallies through nine games (2.44 per game). Second baseman Chase Utley homered twice off Matt Harvey two days ago, proving he’s still got the bat speed to compete with the National League’s best arms.
After a slow start in which they scored just 17 runs in their first seven games, the Nationals have matched that total in the last 14 innings. Right fielder Jayson Werth has contributed to the resurgence, as he reached safely to help spark the Nats’ six-run innings on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Washington also took a step forward with Michael A. Taylor in the No. 9 spot in the order, as the young center fielder collected two singles, a double, a triple and four runs batted in over the past two games.
The Best of the Rest
The Nationals will feature a new-look bullpen from the one they featured in Philadelphia last weekend. Absent are Craig Stammen (forearm stiffness) and Xavier Cedeño (designated for assignment) and in their place are the right-handed rookie Martin as well as left-hander Felipe Rivero, who was called up prior to Thursday’s game and could make his Major League debut during the series. Martin, 30, was incredible in his Major League debut Wednesday, striking out the final five Red Sox he faced in succession.
by Amanda Comak