To see Rafael Martin bouncing around the fields at the Arizona Fall League is to see him living a life he once thought was impossible. Hitting fungoes, shagging fly balls, even displaying the unteachable movement on his fastball that lights up his eyes just to talk about — none of it was in the plans.
Just to call him 'Rafael Martin, right-handed pitching prospect for the Washington Nationals,' is to open a door that Martin himself closed years ago. Closed when he accepted his high school diploma with one year of varsity baseball experience and no scholarship offers to speak of. Closed when he got a job with Slater Inc., a construction company in Fontana, Calif.
"I'm not a baseball player," he thought to himself as he hauled concrete to make storm drains under the hot California sun. He was a softball player, after work during the week, and a recreation-league baseball player on Sundays. But a professional baseball player? He'd never be that.
"I had given up on my dream," he said, sitting in the dugout of the Scottsdale Scorpions, a 27-year-old surrounded by players eight and nine years his junior.
He's struggling with shoulder stiffness that has plagued him since last offseason. He's been told it's nothing major, but the velocity on his fastball velocity dropped from 91-93 mph to 89-91 mph. The stiffness also allowed him to discover a natural cut on his already-sinking fastball. Even when he tried to "hump up" and increase his velocity this season, he couldn't — but the movement was still there.
"I love it," he said. "There are days where I'm on the mound and I find my release point where the ball is cutting a lot and I'll stay there. I will not throw anything else but cutters. Lefties, I'll bust 'em in, and righties, I'll just live outside with it. All I've got to do is just in, out, in, out."
Said Single-A Potomac pitching coach Paul Menhart, who's also a Scorpions coach: "It's moving all over the place. He can sink it, he can cut it. ... When you watch him pitch, you say, 'This kid is fearless.' He's got this maturity out on the mound that you don't expect from a guy that hasn't pitched that long — but he is 27 so the maturity, it's just different from other guys that you look at. You just think 'This guy knows what he's doing.' It's fun to watch."
So how did Martin, who saved 13 games for Double-A Harrisburg in 2011 and posted a 1.65 ERA between Single-A Potomac and Double-A on the season, find himself in the top offseason prospect league?
The lure of a fun weekend game with his friends just over the border in Tecate, Mexico, followed by a barbecue.
"We played on the minor league field in Tecate," Martin said. "The owner happened to be there, he saw me pitch and he was like, 'Hey, do you want to try out?' "
Two months later, with assurances from his bosses at Slater Inc. that his job was secure if things didn't work out, Martin left Riverside, Calif., and headed for Mexico. Two months after that, on Mothers Day 2007, Martin made his professional debut in a game televised by ESPN.
"Ground out to second, ground ball to short," he said, remembering the details. "I was so nervous. I think I went 3-0 to the first guy. I was just shaking."
But the shakes gave way to a fastball clocked between 92-95 mph with sink, a plus slider and an average changeup, according to Nationals director of international scouting Johnny DiPuglia — who had heard about Martin before he was hired by the Nationals in 2009. Scouting trips to see him pitch for the Mazatlan Venados in the Mexican Winter League by DiPuglia and Nationals pro scouting director Bill Singer followed. He was bought out from Mazatlan for $450,000 during spring training in 2010 after failed courtships by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves. Martin received $112,500 as a signing bonus.
"There's always a risk involved when you sign a guy," DiPuglia said. "But we decided the investment was worth the risk in this case."
Martin plans to head back to Mazatlan for the winter league shortly after the AFL ends Thursday. His focus is on starting the 2012 season at Triple-A — with an eye on the major leagues.
"I think there's a really good opportunity and a chance [to make the major leagues]," he said. "I don't talk much. The only way I've got to show talk is on the mound. So that's what I've got to do."
Said DiPuglia: "As far as coming from nowhere and doing what he's done, it's pretty amazing. It'd be a good book one day if he makes it."
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